New dental, primary care teaching office to come to Columbus

Published 8:00 am Thursday, November 15, 2018

Mountain Area Health Education Center, Isothermal Community College and St. Luke’s Hospital will host a public signing event at 6 p.m. Monday, Nov. 26, at the future home of the MAHEC Dental Health Center at Columbus and Foothills Medical Associates, which will be located at 130 Forest Glen Drive in Columbus.

This event formalizes the partnership among these three entities to establish a dental and medical care teaching practice in Polk County that will support ICC’s new dental assistant program and health sciences learners from across the state.  

“There is a shortage of dental and primary healthcare providers across western North Carolina,” said Dr. Jeff Heck, chief executive officer of MAHEC. 

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“Too many families are using hospital emergency departments for their dental care, which is costly and does not improve oral health outcomes,” he said. “We want to make dental and primary healthcare more accessible across our region. This new collaborative partnership will help us do that.” 

Thirteen of the 16 western counties MAHEC serves are federally designated dental health professional shortage areas. In North Carolina, the number of emergency department visits related to dental conditions is twice the national average, and the rate is higher in rural areas.

Poverty, transportation challenges, health literacy and lack of diversity in the dental workforce are also barriers to good oral health in western North Carolina, college representatives said. 

“Isothermal is excited to be a part of this partnership and to offer a dental assisting program that will provide a career path to a good job to many in a career that is in demand. It is an effort that will lead to economic growth and improve quality of life for our citizens,” said Walter Dalton, ICC’s president.   

“It would not be possible without this public-private partnership and the coordination of space, equipment and expertise.  It is a partnership which addresses a need and does it in a cost-effective manner. We thank MAHEC and St. Luke’s for the role each has played in the process and know that the door stands open for continued meaningful collaboration in the future.”

The MAHEC Dental Health Center at Columbus will open in the spring of 2019 after renovations are completed to the former hospice administrative building located behind St. Luke’s Hospital. The comprehensive dental center will provide clinical training opportunities for ICC’s new dental assistant program, which is expected to welcome its first class in the fall of 2019.

The center will also train residents in MAHEC’s dental residency program and students from the University of North Carolina School of Dentistry in Chapel Hill. Students in other health professions will work with primary care providers at Foothills Medical Associates which will be located in the same building. 

“St. Luke’s Hospital and our Foothills Medical Associates providers are pleased to partner with MAHEC and ICC in our effort to improve access to primary care in Columbus and the surrounding area we serve,” said David Pope, interim chief executive officer of St. Luke’s Hospital.

“The importance of board and medical leadership, with a shared vision for providing essential health services through this partnership, cannot be overstated.  We are grateful that providers and regional partners have come together to further enhance our goal to provide exceptional care close to home.”

 The practice will also host learners from the Asheville campuses of the UNC School of Medicine and UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy, as well as other health professions learners. 

By training learners in a rural area, MAHEC hopes to attract more healthcare providers to careers in rural healthcare. 

– Submitted by Michael Gavin