Planned dental school in Yakima gets founding dean

Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences in Yakima has a new dean to take its planned school of dental medicine from a vision into a reality.

Dr. Fotinos Panagakos will serve as the founding dean for PNWU’s school of dental medicine, which is in the development stage, a news release said. The new dental school will train dentists for rural and underserved communities.

“I’m just very honored to have been selected. Dental schools don’t open every other day, it’s more of a rarity,” he said in an interview. “And to be asked to take on this responsibility and realizing how important it is not only for the university, but for the Yakima Valley and the broader Pacific Northwest.”

Panagakos said the next step is to recruit additional faculty.

After that comes the accreditation process, which can take around 12 to 18 months, he said. School leadership needs to develop establishing documents and submit them to the Commission on Dental Accreditation.

“I wouldn’t want to start recruiting students until we know we had that accreditation in hand,” he said.

There is no firm opening date for the school, but Panagakos anticipates fall 2025 as a reasonable time to welcome its first class.

The University of Washington has the state’s sole school of dental medicine, though several dental hygiene schools exist on both sides of the Cascades. While UW’s dental school has a rural outreach program for its students, information from the Rural Health Information Hub shows gaps in care remain.

The entirety of Eastern Washington — except for part of Grant County — is considered a dental care shortage area, according to the RHIH.

An aging workforce of rural dentists, combined with the generally high cost of dental schools and the need to pay off student loans contribute to the issue, Panagakos said.

PNWU’s dental school will one day train a dental workforce to help alleviate the problem.

“We’re going to be training primary care dentists, to go out into these underserved communities and provide oral health as well as general health services,” he said. That includes screening for diabetes and high blood pressure, offering nutritional counseling, and identifying behavioral or emotional issues.

The goal of PNWU’s dental school is reflective of the university’s larger goal to train qualified health care professionals to serve rural and underserved areas, Panagakos said.

Panagakos serves as associate dean for research and postdoctoral affairs at the West Virginia University School of Dentistry, but PNWU’s altruistic vision is part of what attracted Panagakos to the Yakima school.

“That mission really resonated with me here in West Virginia,” he said. “We have a similar challenge with underserved populations in very rural communities.”

His position with PNWU begins remotely in early May, he said. He will remain in West Virginia to see out the remainder of its academic year and commencement.