SOUTH JORDAN — Brett Ballingham always planned on going to dental school, but he thought he'd have to go out of state and leave his family to do so.
The Weber State University zoology grad interviewed elsewhere but lucked out when Roseman University of Health Sciences accepted him into the first-ever, four-year doctor of dental medicine program in the state of Utah. He was one of 64 students in the Class of 2015, drawn from a pool of 1,220 qualified applicants.
Utahns make up half of the new class of students and traditionally represent the highest number of applicants per capita for any of the 61 available dental programs in the United States, so Dean Richard Buchanan believes it is high time Utah had a dental school of its own.
"We hope to be a resource to this region," he said Thursday during the dedication of Roseman's newest graduate program. Dental medicine joins pharmacy and nursing programs at Roseman, which used to be called the University of Southern Nevada, a private non-profit school based in Henderson, Nev.
Roseman has already had more than 1,500 apply for the coming year's 80 available slots, evidence that there's no question demand for the specialized education exists locally.
"We have a lot of patients who come to the hygiene clinic and actually need additional dental care, but we are constantly turning them away because we don't offer it," said Laurel Sampson, director of the dental hygiene program at nearby Salt Lake Community College. Students in Sampson's program can provide basic cleaning and hygiene services, but aren't necessarily trained to assist with extensive dental care.
New, in-house clinics associated with the Roseman University dental medicine program will begin accepting patients as early as Jan. 9. Faculty members, Buchanan said, will work with patients until students enter their third or fourth year and need supervised clinical experience prior to graduation.
Students ante up about $80,000 per year for the education, but Ballingham said that in comparison to other dental schools, "it's totally worth it."
The school's hand-picked faculty, he said, provide a non-competitive learning style to help students foster a lifelong colleague philosophy. It also has state-of-the-art technology available as teaching tools for the new classes of dentists it plans to turn out each year.
The $23-million, 125,000-square-foot facility features a multi-media classroom, six imaging rooms, 80 dental operatories, two wet labs, conference rooms and student and faculty lounges. Upon completion, the building will house 189 clinical work stations that can accommodate up to 350 patients a day.
"They definitely have a leg up on other schools," Ballingham, 27, said. "It's really been a great opportunity and experience."
He plans to practice in Utah, eventually opening his own dentistry. As a bilingual Spanish-speaker, Ballingham believes his services will fill a necessary niche of an expanding Hispanic population in Utah.
But many agree it's not quite clear that the state is in need of more dentists.
"There's not a shortage of dentists but there are under-represented areas and over-represented areas," Sampson said, adding that a growing population might change the various community needs.
A 2006 survey of Utah dentists revealed that 95 percent of those familiar with the trade believed the local market was saturated. However, a Utah Medical Education Council study done the same year found that Utah has 5.8 dentists for every 10,000 people, fewer than was available in 2002 and below the national average of 59.8.
Results also pointed to a large subset of dentists planning to retire within the next decade.
The University of Utah is sitting on an anonymous $30 million donation to build a dental school of its own, but lawmakers have yet to sign off on it, as ongoing state funding would be necessary to keep it going.
With students already attending the private school, South Jordan City Councilwoman Leona Winger said it will help the local economy.
"Now it is here to serve the residents of South Jordan, Utah and the West," she said. The new program is not the end of expansion for Roseman, Winger said, as the school has tentative plans to include a medical school in the future.
It already hosts the 4th-largest pharmacy program in the state, turning out 100 qualified students each year. A fairly new nursing program aims to tackle impending shortages in that field as well.
"These things don't just happen … but they happen quite often in Utah," said Spencer Eccles, director of the Utah Governor's Office of Economic Development. He said that Roseman's success is an obvious result of various community partnerships and will help with the state's goal to increase jobs and "be recognized as a premier global destination."
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company