CHARLESTON, W.Va. - In 2011, 48 students graduated from West Virginia University's School of Dentistry, the only dentistry school in the state. Only six decided to practice in West Virginia, according to school records.
It's the culmination of a trend the school has noticed during the past five years: of the 189 graduates between 2007 and 2010, 75 chose to stay in state.
With more than 35 percent of the state's current dentists expected to retire in the next decade, school and state officials hope a new program will encourage more graduates to stay in West Virginia.
"We couldn't compete with other states in retention programs," said Dr. Jason Roush, West Virgnia state dental director. "So we were losing a lot of our dental graduates to North Carolina and other surrounding states."
Last Thursday, Roush and WVU officials announced the creation of a new federally funded program that will offer loan reimbursement to five students who commit to practicing in West Virginia. The Dental Workforce Loan Reimbursement program will provide up to $50,000 over the course of two years to students who practice in one of the state's shortage areas.
At least 20 percent of the patients at those practices must be Medicaid and Children's Health Insurance Program patients, and the practice must offer service 32 to 40 hours per week, according to a news release.
There are actually quite a few dentists in West Virginia, Roush said. They're clumped together in areas with larger populations, though, leaving some rural or smaller communities with access issues. To use these funds, Roush said students will need to go to one of these underserved areas.
That might not sound enticing to some, but School of Dentistry Dean Dr. David Felton pointed out the average debt for a dentistry graduate is close to $150,000.
"The issue is we train the students to be good clinical dentists but they are so indebted that they can't afford to set up in a rural area," Felton said.