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Open house is held to celebrate new regional dental clinic at Rice Hospital

WILLMAR -- The grand opening of the Rice Regional Dental Clinic was celebrated Thursday with tours of the new state-of-the-art teaching facility and tributes to all the partners who made the clinic possible.

WILLMAR -- The grand opening of the Rice Regional Dental Clinic was celebrated Thursday with tours of the new state-of-the-art teaching facility and tributes to all the partners who made the clinic possible.

Dr. Patrick Lloyd, dean of the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry, called it "an opportunity to boast."

"This is a group effort that got behind the project," he said.

"I think the future of dental health in rural west central Minnesota is taking a great leap forward," said Dr. Michael Gardner, a Willmar dentist and chairman of the program's advisory committee.

The regional dental clinic, has a two-fold mission: providing hands-on training in a rural setting for dentistry and dental hygiene students at the university, and improving regional access to dental care for people who are low-income.

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It's believed to be the only hospital-based dental training program in the United States.

Organizers hope the clinic, a partnership between Rice Memorial Hospital and the University of Minnesota, will broaden the students' skills and inspire them to choose rural practice when they complete their training. They also believe it will help meet a significant need for dental care among the region's underserved populations.

More than 200 people -- including a busload of 23 faculty and dental students from the university -- came Thursday to tour the clinic, which opened in mid-December.

There's been almost no advertising, yet the clinic's schedule has been filling rapidly with patients.

Matt Sievers, one of four dentistry students currently here on rotation, said the volume and variety of patients has been "quite an eye-opener."

"Opportunities like this mean everything to us," he said.

Dental care isn't a service traditionally associated with hospitals, said Lorry Massa, chief executive of Rice Hospital.

The city-owned hospital backed the concept, however, because hospital officials saw the need and saw how it could be integrated into overall community health, he said.

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"It took a great deal of courage on the part of the hospital board and ultimately the City Council to say, 'OK, go for it,'" he said.

The board's decision to go ahead with the project also came at a time of financial difficulty for Rice, Massa said.

"There were people questioning what we were doing," he said.

Organizers faced the challenge as well of developing philosophical and financial support for a project that initially existed only as a concept.

"We traveled around the state and talked to people all over about this idea," Lloyd said.

He described how support snowballed for the project.

"People who don't even live within 150 miles of here were asking about the Willmar clinic," he said.

Ultimately, all the capital costs to build and equip the clinic and to cover the first three years of its operating costs -- more than $2 million -- were raised through state and federal grants, plus a $500,000 allocation from the Minnesota Legislature in 2006.

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During a short ceremony Thursday, Massa and Lloyd thanked all the funding organizations for their support.

"We hope we can show them we're doing something worthwhile," Massa said. "We're going to look for your support long into the future."

Dr. Robert Erickson, the program director, said that as the clinic's staff and students have been acclimating themselves to the newly opened facility, he tells them, "Every day is a new adventure."

"This clinic is a work in progress," he said. "And so we're not finished yet. We're just starting."

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