Populations in the four-corners region of Southwest Missouri, Northwest Arkansas, Northeast Oklahoma and Southeast Kansas bear out alarming disparities in access to health care compared with other parts of the country, and oral health is no exception.

Our region — and particularly the rural areas — have fewer dentists per capita than most areas in the United States, and the vast majority of counties within a 125-mile radius of Joplin qualify as Dental Health Professions Shortage Areas. Although oral health in the United States in general has improved markedly during the past half-century, more than 46 million people nationally now live in DHPSAs.

In these pockets, residents face a dearth of providers to deliver needed care and suffer relatively higher incidences of oral disease as a result. Compounding the problem is the long-understood and perilous link between oral health and systemic health. In fact, poor oral health may promote a host of other illnesses, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, osteoporosis and kidney disease, further threatening the overall health and well-being of communities.

Indeed, all 50 states and the District of Columbia expect to see demand for oral health providers outpace supply by 2025. It is estimated that 7,000 dentists are needed in the U.S. to meet the current need for dental care providers, with the possibility of an additional 8,600 dentists needed to ensure an adequate supply in 2025. In Missouri alone, 376 dentists are currently needed to remove the DHPSA designation, with Arkansas needing 105 dentists, Kansas needing 103, and Oklahoma requiring 166. What’s more, there are currently only three dental schools in the region: two in Missouri and one in Oklahoma, with none in either Kansas or Arkansas.

As a private, nonprofit health sciences university with a 102-year history of educating physicians and other health professionals to meet workforce needs — and a proven presence in the region through our recently established medical school campus in Joplin — Kansas City University is in a unique and favorable position to help close this troubling gap.

We are completing our due diligence for developing a College of Dental Medicine in Joplin and are committed to working across state borders to partner with other educational institutions, civic and philanthropic entities, and the dental and medical communities to make this great hope a reality.

When we established our osteopathic medical school in Joplin in 2017, we wanted it to serve as a model for collaboration and a successful case study on working cooperatively to galvanize support for meeting the health care needs of populations in our communities. Today, with the critical need for greater access to oral health care for residents in the region, we believe the opportunity to leverage that model and build on economies is clear.

A KCU College of Dental Medicine would align well with our osteopathic philosophy of holistic patient care with an emphasis on underserved and diverse populations, and advance our university’s mission of “improving the well-being of the communities we serve.” Our vision for a full-scale dental school would support a class size of 60 to 80 students each year and adopt a community-based distributive model that takes advantage of available clinical partnerships and experiences, promotes an interprofessional learning environment, and ensures delivery of oral health education where patients in greatest need of care are located.

Left unchecked, disparities in access to oral health care in the KCU-Joplin region portend a significant decline in the overall well-being and quality of life in our communities. Those of us in health professions education must continue to identify creative solutions, build partnerships, and maximize synergies to train needed workforces, helping to close supply-demand gaps and improve health outcomes for at-risk populations.

In the four-corners region, the need — and the opportunity — to solve the oral health crisis has never been greater. At KCU, we embrace both.

Marc B. Hahn, DO, became the 14th president and chief executive officer of Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences in July 2013 after serving as KCU’s executive vice president for academic and medical affairs, provost and dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine since October 2012. In 2017, KCU opened a second medical school campus in Joplin to help address the growing need for primary care physicians in the region’s rural communities.