The COVID-19 pandemic will delay the construction and opening of KCU’s new College of Dental Medicine in Joplin by a year, but leaders say the behind-the-scenes work of designing a curriculum and hiring faculty and staff are well underway.

“When you have to deal with a once-in-a-century global pandemic, I guess this is one of the things that happens,” Linda Niessen, dean of the college, said of the delay.

The College of Dental Medicine is being built alongside the College of Osteopathic Medicine on the Joplin campus of Kansas City University. It was to open with its first cohort of students in fall 2022, but administrators now are eyeing a fall 2023 opening.

Much of the delay stems from the accreditation process, Niessen said. The Commission on Dental Accreditation wasn’t accepting new applications throughout much of the pandemic, and KCU leaders couldn’t submit their application until earlier this year.

Now that initial accreditation is in place, construction work has begun on the property, which is the site of the former temporary Mercy Hospital. The building was given to KCU after Mercy completed its new hospital south of Interstate 44, the construction of which was necessitated by the May 2011 tornado.

The old emergency room portion of the temporary hospital, which has largely been unused since the College of Osteopathic Medicine opened in the building in 2017, is being converted into the dental school’s academic center, to be filled with offices and classrooms, Niessen said.

The college’s oral health center is being constructed to the south of the existing building, she said. The oral health center will be a three-story building connected to the medical school via walkway; it will hold simulation labs with the latest technology. A groundbreaking is tentatively planned for this summer.

The building itself has been adapted for the COVID-19 era. Its designs have been modified to change the ventilation and how air flows through the building in an effort to lessen the risk of spreading respiratory illnesses, Niessen said. The size of barriers between each operatory in the simulation labs also have increased, she said.

“Should another respiratory-transmitted virus occur, we’ve got a facility that we can continue to see patients in because we made the necessary modifications,” she said.

Curriculum design

Hiring of faculty for the new college also has begun. Niessen has now hired four faculty members, with a fifth due to start on July 1. Among the new faculty members are Sharon Gordon, who has been named the associate dean for academic affairs and research; Diane Ede-Nichols, who is the associate dean for clinical education and patient care; and Erinne Kennedy, director of predoctoral dental education.

Kennedy’s role is to design the curriculum. She is focused on three key components:

Creating a humanistic environment in which students can flourish. This will include a program where faculty or peer coaches partner with students, she said.

Interprofessional educational opportunities by working with other colleges within KCU and outside of it.

Integration. Every class will be based on a simulated patient case for which students have to integrate knowledge about biology, anatomy and other sciences to learn about different conditions.

The goal, Kennedy said, is to prepare students for practice, particularly in rural areas, to help improve the oral health of the community.

“Oral health is essential for overall health,” she said. “That is a centered component to so much of our curriculum.”

Both Kennedy and Niessen envision that the college also will partner with area dentists and community health centers to better serve the needs of the region.

“I see us working together, and together we’ll recruit the next generation of dental professionals for the Joplin area,” Niessen said.

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Emily Younker is the managing editor at the Joplin Globe. Contact: eyounker AT joplinglobe DOT com.