KINGSPORT, Tenn. (WJHL) — Kingsport could eventually be home to a dental school through a collaboration between the city, the University of Tennessee, East Tennessee State University and Ballad Health.

Kingsport’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen (BMA) took the first step toward that Tuesday, committing to a five-year lease of a medical office building and approving an agreement with the other partners. That agreement begins with establishing a dental clinic and bringing students from ETSU’s dental hygiene program and UT’s Memphis-based dental school to do rotations in an array of dental services.

“The BMA vote tonight represents a commitment to the community in terms of both health care and the economy,” City Manager Chris McCartt said in a news release.

“We’re pleased that all parties involved see the potential benefit of locating the clinic in Kingsport and we look forward to realizing the benefits this will provide the entire region.”

The Appalachian Highlands Dental Clinic could open its doors to the first students and patients in 2024.

The effort comes at a time when Tennessee ranks 45th nationally for the number of dentists per capita, with a statewide shortage of 800 dentists according to the American Dental Association. The shortage is most pronounced in rural areas, and Tennessee’s Health Smiles Initiative estimates 40% of the state’s 3,247 dentists will retire within the next decade.

McCartt said whether the project eventually becomes a full-fledged dental school or just a four-year full dental educational program depends on how things play out in the early phases. But UT Health Sciences Center’s Dr. James Ragain suggested demand is likely to be high.

“We are focused on increasing the dental workforce across Tennessee, but particularly in rural communities, where the need is greatest,” Ragain said.

The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the parties notes the 2021 establishment of a working group by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee to develop recommendations for increased dental care access. That group approved a $94 million “Healthy Smiles Initiative” meant to expand access, and also “highlighted the importance of recruiting students from and placing students in rural and underserved communities” to help increase the number of dentists serving in those types of locations.

The prospect of two universities collaborating to establish a dental school has already been warmly received by the Commission on Dental Accreditation, which accredits U.S. dental schools, McCartt said.

“This dovetails with East Tennessee State University’s mission to improve lives in the communities of the Appalachian Highlands,” ETSU President Brian Noland said in the release.

“Every community in the region stands to benefit as these students graduate and become part of our dental workforce, providing much-needed care.”

Ballad Heath residents will also offer services at the site.

Five of Northeast Tennessee’s eight counties have fewer than half the number of dentists recommended by the American Dental Association.

In addition to the health care and higher education partners, the First Tennessee Development District and Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Hub are collaborating to seek grants that could help offset program costs.

The city’s five-year lease of 7,000 square feet at the West Sevier Professional Building, 117 W. Sevier Ave., will cost $1 million, and other Phase I startup costs are estimated at $1 to $1.3 million. The ongoing costs are estimated at $800,000 a year.

As the grantwriting partners seek funding they expect to approach BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, Delta Dental and Eastman Chemical Company. Grant funds will be sought from the Appalachian Regional Commission as well.

The MOU states nine main objectives for the partners:

1. Evaluate the patient population and dental care needs of the region.

2. Engage area dentists and members of the First District Dental Society.

3. Explore existing and needed dental specialty coverage.

4. Identify physical space within the corporate limits of the City of Kingsport for a clinic building within sufficient proximity of a Ballad Health hospital to support UTHSC dental students.

5. UTHSC will explore whether clinical operation funds from Healthy Smiles Initiative can potentially contribute, even if minimally and in good faith, to the building support kindly provided by the City of Kingsport.

6. Identify sources and models for start-up costs and sustained operational funding.

7. Develop a phased plan, actionable timeline, and outcome measures.

8. Develop and operate a dental clinic supported by Residents from Ballad Health.

9. Explore the establishment of a four year full dental educational program collaboratively or potentially dental school within the corporate limits of the City of Kingsport