Bringing it all Back Home: Lyon College and OneHealth Team Up to Create Dental and Veterinary School in Arkansas
Trying to get in to see a dentist lately? Particularly in rural parts of the state, you might have to wait months or travel long distances to see a dentist. That is part of the reason Arkansas ranks last in the country when it comes to oral health. Additionally, it can be challenging to make an appointment with a veterinarian. The state currently ranks 49th in the number of veterinarians per capita.
Lyon College in Batesville and OneHealth in Little Rock are working to make progress on those two fronts with plans to open a dental school and veterinarian school at the recently purchased Heifer International campus in Little Rock.
Perry Wilson, chairman of the Lyon College Board of Trustees, said Lyon College is proud of its strong science programs that have prepared undergraduate students for 150 years. “We are now prepared to leverage that success for the dental and veterinary programs we are developing,” Wilson said.
Heifer International has signed a long-term lease to remain at the campus but occupy less space in the main building. The main building at the campus in Little Rock’s East Village will host other tenants including the Clinton Foundation.
“East Village is poised to be a hub of future economic growth in central Arkansas,” said Merritt Dake, CEO of OneHealth Companies. “We are excited to build upon the foundation that Heifer has made in promoting health solutions for Arkansas and the world.”
Since Melissa Taverner became provost of Lyon College in 2018, she has been looking at new projects that both meet their mission and fulfill a need in the community.
“The vet and dental schools are part of a constellation of initiatives that allow us to do what we do best,” Taverner said. “The idea really took off after we had conversations with OneHealth and realized we had multiple points of intersection. I think this relationship is particularly powerful because both Lyon College and OneHealth are private. We are small, but very nimble and excel at leveraging the things we are really good at. Our strength is we have a very good working relationship and are able to move very quickly.”
The schools will be part of the new Lyon College Institute of Health Sciences. The accreditors for the dental and vet schools largely control the timing of when the schools can open, with hopefuls projecting the first classes could be held as soon as 2024. Accreditation applications were made in March, and Taverner expects them to be approved when everything is in place to ensure the quality of instruction is exceptional, and the schools are ready to train the next generation of professionals.
“The whole rationale is to train Arkansas residents at home so they can stay at home to open their practices in the communities they love,” Taverner said. “There is a fair amount of data that shows when people leave the state to train elsewhere, they don’t come back to Arkansas to practice. This is one of the powerful ways that we can address that problem. These two projects will not only be better for people, but will serve as an economic driver, as well.”
Arkansas residents who train elsewhere have to pay much higher out-of-state tuition. Affordability of higher education plays a critical role in the future economic viability of students and programs. Taverner said the proposed plan for Lyon College Institute of Health Sciences strives to make high-quality education available at an affordable cost that prepares its future graduates, and the communities in which they will serve, for success.
Frazier Edwards, president of the OneHealth Education Group, said there are many studies that show preventative care saves money for the individual and the health care system. He said it is also important from an economic standpoint.
“A study from the National Center for Rural Health Works estimated that one dentist generated five jobs on average, with average labor income from those five totaling $340,000,” Edwards said. “There were also long-term economic benefits. If you can meet people where they are in their communities with dental care, you can really start moving the needle in the right direction. If we start really addressing these gaps, we can get out of last place.”
Arkansas Center for Health Improvement Health Policy Director Craig Wilson, a Lyon College alum (who is not related to Perry Wilson), said the plans are good news, but now the hard part of making it happen begins, which includes working toward obtaining accreditation, recruiting faculty and developing training programs.
“The need for a dental school has been evident for a long time,” Craig Wilson said. “We have critical dental professional shortages in rural parts of our state. All of the Arkansas students who want to pursue dentistry currently obtain their professional education in other states, and that educational pathway acts as a barrier to retaining dentists in the state.”
According to Craig Wilson, the level of investment that will be needed to establish a dental school should motivate policymakers and industry leaders to more broadly tackle the dental access challenges we face as a state and ensure that oral health is more commonly addressed as a critical part of our overall health.
Edwards said with both dentists and veterinarians, the baby boomer generation is either starting to retire, or about to retire. Lyon College and OneHealth are focusing on creating a pipeline in the state, ensuring continuity of care that addresses future workforce demands.
OneHealth uses private sector capital and consultant solutions to support the launch of professional health science programs.
“Our goal is to reduce the debt burden of graduating professionals and to provide solutions for communities that lack ample access to health care,” Edwards said. “OneHealth has partnered with the country’s leading education consulting firms to develop the schools. The Academy of Advancing Leadership is assisting with development of the dental school, and we are partnering with the Animal Policy Group on development of the vet school.”
Arkansas has significant cattle, chicken, and horse industries that require specialized vet training. And statistics show pet ownership is on the rise; studies today show people have more pets than children. “We are not producing enough vets as a state,” Edwards said.
Jerry Bridges, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at Town & Country Animal Hospital in Little Rock, said having a vet school in Arkansas will be good for in-state students, the vet profession, people, their pets and livestock.
“All the surrounding states have vet schools, which makes it harder for Arkansas students to get into vet school as an out-of-state student,” Bridges said. “I have two undergraduates working for me this summer and they are excited about the news. There is a need for more veterinarians. Most clinics I know are looking to add vets. Work-life balance has become an important aspect in today’s society. This is an emotionally draining profession, and more vets will hopefully mean a better work-life balance for the whole in-state profession.”
Bridges said the pandemic has shown how important pets are to their families. “Having more vets will allow better access to the care that can allow [pets] to be happy and live longer lives, which will improve the quality of life of their families.”