Inside Dentistry
June 2012
Volume 8, Issue 6

The Gift of Oral Health

A community in rural Maine responds to a critical need.

By Susan Pierter

Maine is a rural state with only one dentist for every 2,300 people—the national average is one per 1,600 people. And the situation will get worse when 41% of Maine dentists who are 55 years or older decide to retire. This lack of access to dental care has resulted in visits to hospital emergency departments where care costs 10 times the amount of a clinical setting.

Maine’s neighbors in New Hampshire and Vermont have a similar lack of access to care. But change is on the horizon thanks to a community that stepped up to improve oral health. University of New England first envisioned building a dental school when it conducted a feasibility study in 2007. At the time it was determined that making it a reality would take a lot of support from dentists, businesses, foundations, and state and federal sources.

All of this has come true, and while fundraising is still ongoing, UNE will open the first College of Dental Medicine in northern New England in the fall 2013.

“University of New England is a private university with a public mission,” said UNE’s president, Danielle N. Ripich, PhD. “A new College of Dental Med­icine will help improve access to care in the region.”

Based in Portland, Maine, students of the new College of Dental Medicine will graduate with the experience of learning in an interprofessional environment at UNE that includes numerous health professional graduate schools and programs, including medical, pharmacy, public health, nursing, physician assistant, and social work.

The dream has become a reality through the generosity of those who understood the need. Northeast Delta Dental led the way with a gift of $2.3 million. CEO Tom Raffio said, “Dental science indicates that the integration of health services with dental services is the best approach for the recovery of the patient, so we’re very pleased that dentists will be trained as members of a valued team of healthcare professionals at UNE and that their training will include experience at a community-based teaching dental clinic.”

Community-based dental clinics are part of the curriculum for students who will provide thousands of patient hours in an urban clinic in Portland, Maine, in their third year, and then move out to clinics throughout the region for 6- to 12-month externships. The four-year curriculum will follow this format:

• Year 1: Basic sciences, dental sciences, dental simulation, and early clinical experiences.
• Year 2: Dental sciences, dental simulation, clinical experiences, and principles in public health.
• Year 3: Clinical practice in a UNE Dental Center, plus work in public health and research.
• Year 4: External clinical practice throughout the region where dental care will be provided to patients seeking care at local community dental centers. Students will be on clinical rotations for the majority of time during their fourth and final year.

“If you recruit young men and women from northern New England, educate them locally, and place them back in the community to deliver oral healthcare as student practitioners, you have greatly increased the chances that those graduates will practice in these rural areas when they graduate. In addition, the students greatly expand their clinical experiences, providing much needed care to underserved communities as part of their educational program,” said Dr. James J. Koelbl, founding dean of UNE’s College of Dental Medicine.

The model for a community-based dental clinic was made possible when, in August 2010, the state of Maine awarded UNE $3.5 million for a community-based teaching dental clinic. The legislature passed a $5 million bond package, approved by voters in November 2010. Of that $5 million, $3.5 million (approximately 32% of the project cost) was designated for a community-based teaching dental clinic affiliated with, or operated by, a college of dental medicine to be matched by $3.5 million in other funds. UNE submitted the sole proposal. Gifts and grants from corporations, foundations, and individuals also helped make the new dental school a reality.

Integrated Education and Care

UNE is uniquely positioned to facilitate fundamental change in healthcare education related to oral health. It is already home to the College of Osteopathic Medicine where students are taught that health is more than the absence of disease, and to treat the whole person in body, mind, and spirit. With this approach, oral health is essential to overall health.

Another advantage for future dental students is that UNE’s Westbrook College of Health Professions already has one of the strongest dental hygiene programs in the country. Accredited by the American Dental Association, students in their third and fourth year spend a part of every week in clinical coursework under the close supervision of faculty.

The addition of dental students at UNE will encourage future interprofessional collaboration for the benefit of patient care, expanding the scope of oral healthcare already made available to the 5,000 patients who currently use UNE’s Dental Hygiene Clinic for preventative care.

Students as Pioneers

UNE will begin accepting applications for its first cohort of 45 students in June 2012 in anticipation of the 2013 opening.

Just what kind of a student would enroll in a new dental school? Dean Koelbl believes that successful candidates will have a pioneering spirit needed for the inaugural class. “They are the trail blazers. We’ll be asking them to help shape the curriculum. There are students who will consider that an advantage and will likely be most suited to work in rural areas where you need to pitch in and do what’s needed for the public good. There’s not always a road map available for this. However, our inaugural classes will not only receive a high-quality education, they will be able to look back and take tremendous pride in helping to create an innovative dental program.”

Recognizing traits for success in rural areas of New England will require an evaluation of the whole candidate, not only grades. Preference will be given to candidates who already live in the region, but also to those who have good interpersonal skills and leadership and community service experience.

The need is great and the opportunities are greater. “We recognize our strong obligation for the College and its graduates to help improve the health of individuals, families, and communities in New England and beyond,” said Dean Koelbl.


UNE submitted the initial application for accreditation to the American Dental Association Commission on Dental Accreditation in March 2011, according to Dean Koelbl.

The application will be reviewed by a team of CODA consultants. After an on-campus site visit, a report on the school’s progress will be forwarded to the Commission on Dental Accred­itation, with a decision expected in late summer.

Founding Dean of UNE’s College of Dental Medicine

James J. Koelbl, DDS, MS, MJ, joined UNE as the founding dean of the new College of Dental Medicine in April 2011. He is also the founding dean of the College of Dental Medicine at Western University of Health Sciences in California and served as the dean of the School of Dentistry at West Virginia University from 1999–2007.

He held several senior positions at the American Dental Association from 1994–1999, including the position of associate executive director for education, science, and dental practice, and served as associate dean for Clinical Affairs and professor at the University of Louisville School of Dentistry from 1992–1994.

Also, he held several administrative and faculty positions at the Loyola University School of Dentistry from 1977–1992, including: director, General Practice Residency; chair, Operative Dentistry; assistant dean for Admissions and Student Affairs; and associate dean for Academic Affairs.

Dr. James J. Koelbl is the founding dean of the new College of Dental Medicine at University of New England.

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