Northeast Ohio Medical University has formally stepped up to help meet the growing need for dental care in Ohio.
More:Doctors donate $10 million toward new NEOMED dental school, university’s largest gift ever
When NEOMED opens the Bitonte College of Dentistry in 2025, it will be the third dental college in Ohio, eventually graduating about 50 dentists annually.
Drs. Gary and David Bitonte gave the gift in memory of their parents, Dominic Bitonte, who was a dentist, and Helen Bitonte, who worked to educate school children about proper dental care.
David Bitonte said the two colleges of dentistry in Ohio — a public program at Ohio State University and a private program at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland — graduate about 200 dentists each year.
“You can bet that at least 200 dentists retire every year,” he said.
NEOMED hosted a ceremony last week to announce the name of the dental college and thank the Bitonte for the gift, the largest in the university’s history. It is the first time that a college at NEOMED has been named for a donor, according to Dr. John Langell, president of NEOMED.
Langell and other speakers at the dedication spoke about oral health being a major unmet health need among Ohioans, Previously, Langell said Kaiser Family Foundation data and an Ohio Department of Health map show that oral health is the top unmet health care need of Ohioans, and 77 of Ohio’s 88 counties are Health Professional Shortage Areas for oral health.
The donors, both retired physicians, are familiar with how dental care can impact overall health.
“The mouth is the gateway to general health,” said David Bitonte, an anesthesiologist, explaining that everything that comes into the mouth, including bacteria, ends up in the gastrointestinal tract. His brother, a urologist, added that bacteria in the mouth also can get into the bloodstream and affect the valves of the heart.
Many people in Ohio, especially those who live in rural areas, don’t have good access to oral care, the men said.
Langell’s predecessor, Jay Gershen, a dentist, first explored the idea of a dental college at NEOMED in 2014. But Langell said when he joined NEOMED, the college was not on his radar.Two of NEOMED’s partners approached him immediately, explaining that oral health was Ohio’s biggest unmet health care need.
Officials then began studying the feasibility of the dental college, and the answer came back “a resounding yes,” he said..
“It’s critical, especially in Northeast Ohio,” he said.
Phil Trueblood, chairman of the board of trustees at NEOMED, said dental care is more important than most people realize.
“There’s a huge shortage of dentist in Ohio,” he said. One dentist, he said, sees an average of 7.5 patients daily
Gina Bitonte, daughter of Gary Bitonte and a dentist in the Cleveland area, said she sees eight to 12 patients daily at Neighborhood Family Practice in Cleveland, as does the other dentist who works there. The practice is a community health care center, she said, and works with the refugee population.
“Definitely, for sure, it’s an unmet need, especially in the rural areas,” she said.
Langell thanked State Sen. Jerry Cirino and State Rep. Gail Pavliga for securing $1 million in state funding and said he is working with Senators Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman to obtain federal funds towards the college. The college needs $25 million to meet start-up expenses.
Dr. Frank Beck, interim dean, said the college cannot begin classes until fall 2025 because of the long process to seek accreditation through the Council on Dental Accreditation. In the interim, other steps can be taken, including renovating the space on campus that will host classrooms, laboratories and a dental clinic.
Reporter Diane Smith can be reached at 330-298-1139 or firstname.lastname@example.org.