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Dr. Stephen Pachuta's message from the dean January 2024

A statewide conversation about oral health

Dear fellow alumni and friends of the School of Dentistry,

We hope you and your family had a relaxing and enjoyable holiday season and that your new year is off to a great start. It is exciting to see our students return and immediately reengage with their studies and clinical experiences — we especially enjoy seeing how laser-focused our seniors are on graduation.

On Jan. 5, I had an opportunity to travel to the Capitol and participate on a three-member healthcare panel at the West Virginia Press Association Legislative Lookahead for 2024. It was exciting to have a chance to tell the story of our School and share the successes of students, as well as answer questions regarding healthcare across our state. I believe there was a general consensus that one of the greatest needs is for access to safe, quality healthcare (medical and dental) for the rural areas of our state.

There were several points that we were able to highlight during the conversation:

  • Our School of Dentistry is a major contributor to meeting the access to care needs across the state. As many of you know, 83% of the general dentists practicing in West Virginia are graduates of our School. For the 2023 graduating class, 41% of our graduates remained in West Virginia; this is up from 22% from the class of 2022. Additionally, the School serves as a major access to care point for many families across the state. This is in full alignment with West Virginia University and our role as a modern land-grant university.
  • There is an acute need for access to care for the pediatric population as well as for patients with special healthcare needs. This need is not unique to West Virginia and remains a challenge nationally. The selection of our inaugural class of three residents to begin their studies in our pediatric dentistry residency program is the next step in our journey to meet the oral healthcare needs of our West Virginia families.
  • Several questions focused on “How do we recruit dentists to practice in the rural areas of our state?” This is a challenge. We have counties in West Virginia that do not have a full-time dentist to serve the community. With many students graduating from dental school with over $300,000 in student loan debt, there is a need for many new graduates to seek locations and practice arrangements that will allow them to begin immediately paying down debt. For many, their student loan payments are greater than a mortgage payment and they still need to make a living to support their family. A proposed solution is to offer student loan forgiveness to graduates who choose to practice in underserved locations. One such model could offer a tiered approach of up to $50,000 per year in loan forgiveness for a three-, four- or five-year commitment to practice in an underserved area.
  • It is a strategic imperative to renovate, modernize and consolidate our facilities and technology infrastructure at our School. We must remain nationally competitive to recruit the best and brightest students, faculty and staff. With the explosive expansion of digital technology as the standard of practice to enhance quality and access to care, we must ensure a robust facility and technology infrastructure to support digital dentistry.

These are just a few of the initiatives to support our vision and goal of being recognized as the dental school of choice for our students, faculty, staff and patients.

Lead well at every engagement. Thank you for all you do for our School and especially for our students and patients.

Warmest regards,
Stephen Pachuta