New Bachelor of Science program first of its kind in Laredo, will provide essential dental care and job opportunities.
The School of Dentistry of The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UT Health San Antonio) has launched Laredo’s first Bachelor of Science in Dental Hygiene degree program at the UT Education and Research Center at Laredo (UT Center at Laredo). The program will address significant gaps in oral health care needs within the community while boosting local job opportunities in a high-demand field.
UT System administrators, dental school leaders and federal, state and local elected officials joined for a ribbon-cutting at the UT Center at Laredo, where two classrooms and three specialized labs were recently completed for the top-ranking dental hygiene program. The launch represents the ninth degree program offered at the UT Center at Laredo as UT System maintains its commitment to investing education and health care resources in this rapidly growing region of the state.
In addition to the classrooms and labs, the program will provide low-cost dental hygiene care locally at the UT Dentistry Laredo Dental Clinic, a partnership of the UT Health San Antonio School of Dentistry and the Laredo Health Department, and at the Gateway Community Health Center and Laredo College. Regular dental hygiene visits can help prevent conditions like diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers.
“The goal of the program is to recruit local students to the dental hygiene profession who will stay in the area after graduation and provide preventive oral health care,” said Peter M. Loomer, BSc, DDS, PhD, MBA, dean and professor of the UT Health San Antonio School of Dentistry. “Dental hygienists are licensed health care professionals who specialize in oral health promotion and disease prevention, and educating patients on how they can maintain optimal oral health.”
“The University of Texas System is proud to be expanding its footprint across the state of Texas, specifically in Laredo, where demand for improved health care access and higher education opportunities has never been greater,” said John M. Zerwas, MD, executive vice chancellor for health affairs at The University of Texas System. “Our UT health institutions provide the best care and the best medical teaching in the state and UT Health San Antonio’s expanded dental hygiene program will play a critical role in training equipped medical professionals to meet this important need throughout Laredo and Webb County.”
The two-year program starts with a new cohort each July, with the first one beginning in Laredo last month. Over the next two years, enrollment is expected to reach a total of 16 students. Applications for next year’s program open on Oct. 26.
“UT Health San Antonio’s new dental hygienist program will forge the next generation of dental hygienists right here in Laredo, where the need for oral health professionals has never been greater,” said U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, District 28, a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee. “Beyond providing a world-class education, the new program will also provide good-paying jobs and rewarding careers for aspiring Laredo students.
“Thank you to Dr. Zerwas, Dr. Loomer and Adriana Nunemaker, executive director of the UT Center at Laredo, for bringing the dental hygienist program to fruition,” he said. “I will continue to work with our state and local officials to deliver for Laredo students.”
“The new UT Health San Antonio dental hygienist program at our UT Center at Laredo will help address our community’s dental health education needs and empower aspiring hygienists to serve in this medically underserved area,” said State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, District 21. “We are grateful to all involved and pledge continued support for such impactful educational and health care endeavors.
“May all aspiring dental hygienists remember their roles and responsibilities extend beyond the chairside,” she said. “They are the bridge between oral health and overall well-being, and their dedication profoundly will impact countless families in our community. Congratulations to the UT Education and Research Center at Laredo and to the pioneering students embarking on this journey toward a healthier future for all Texans.”
Zaffirini authored legislation in 2021 establishing the UT Center at Laredo,managed by the UT System, to address the region’s rapid growth and increasing needs for education and health care. The center enables multiple UT institutions to offer expanded education and research opportunities to the greater Laredo community, and includes UT San Antonio, UT Health San Antonio, UTHealth Houston and UT Rio Grande Valley.
UT Health San Antonio also offers a Physician Assistant program at the center, operated by its School of Health Professions.
“Today is another historic day for the University of Texas Education and Research Center at Laredo as we celebrate this important and much-needed degree program,” Nunemaker said. “We are grateful to the School of Dentistry at UT Health San Antonio, and to each distinguished UT institution housed at our center for their resolve to serve our students and community. Sen. Zaffirini has been an invaluable advocate for the UT Center at Laredo as have numerous other lawmakers and community leaders. We look forward to continuing to work with them and UT System Chancellor Milliken to meet workforce needs and improve the health of our beloved Laredo community.”
A fast-growing profession
The dental hygienist profession is projected to be one of the fastest-growing occupations, as “population growth combined with the increasing rate of retention of natural teeth will continue to stimulate the need for dental hygienists,” Loomer said.
Students applying for the program need to have completed 60 hours of prerequisite courses transferred from an accredited college or university, including 42 hours of Texas core curriculum and 18 hours of prerequisite program courses. The two-year dental hygiene curriculum follows, plus a National Dental Hygiene Board Examination, a state or regional clinical examination and a jurisprudence exam to become a Registered Dental Hygienist (RDH).
The dental hygiene courses at the UT Center at Laredo are taught live and through distance learning by UT Health San Antonio School of Dentistry faculty, and in-person dental hygiene faculty teach at the new simulation and radiology labs there and at the community clinics, where students also get practical experience.
“The students who see patients will be supervised, monitored and evaluated by on-site dental hygiene faculty at each rotation site,” said Magda de la Torre, RDH, MPH, clinical assistant professor and director of dental hygiene at UT Health San Antonio.
Local officials see benefits for both health care and the local workforce. Laredo, a city of approximately 276,000 identified as 95.5% Hispanic, continually has been an underserved area for medical and dental care.
“Over the last 25 years, the area’s explosive population growth coupled with the slow growth of the health care labor force have resulted in a significantly understaffed health care system and a medically underserved community,” said Tano E. Tijerina, Webb County judge. “This is the stimulus for the campus to prepare local outstanding registered dental hygienists who will enhance the health care workforce of Laredo and Webb County.”
Expanding the UT Health San Antonio dental hygiene program to Laredo will improve access to oral health care for Laredo and surrounding areas. The aim is that the graduates be employed locally to provide preventive oral health care to the community, creating a long-term community of care and commitment to the region.