Dental health is not just an issue of vanity, but a necessity for general well being. Unfortunately, the nations' shortage of qualified dentists is not helping those in need of dental treatments find a trustworthy professional to assist. The problem is being caused not by the number of licensed dentists in the nation but instead, by where the dentists are choosing to practice their craft.
Close to 31 million Americans live in areas underserved by dental care professionals. The regions, are officially called Health Professional Shortage Areas (HPSA) and statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services suggest that there are more than 4,000 areas federally designated as HPSAs and that 6,645 new dentists are needed to fill the gap. The imbalance within the dental care facility is being fueled by the retirement of baby boomer generation of dentists and lower enrollment levels for the next crop of dentists.
The New York Times reported that despite the nation's population growing by 22 percent since 1990, the number of dentists has plateaued at approximately 150,000 practitioners ("Dental Clinics, Meeting a Need With No Dentist," The New York Times, April 8, 2008). Those who choose dentistry as their profession often opt to set up their dental clinics in urban environments, not rural settings. That location disparity is contributing to the HPSAs as well as dentists are denying a shortage in the first place.
The Academy of General Dentists (AGD) uses the state of Illinois to demonstrate the issue (http://www.agd.org/education/transcriptnews/Default.asp?PubID=47&IssID=1344&ArtID=9336). In suburban DuPage County, the booming population of 916,924 (U.S. Census Bureau 2010) has no reported shortage of dentists practicing in the area. However, the smaller 53,873 population ( U.S. Census Bureau 2010) of rural Coles County is in need of four more dentists in order to meet the ratio of one dentist per 3,000 people.
Since the dentist shortage is primarily impacting citizens who need dental care most, there are a number of policies to help change the balance. One approach is coming from various government and philanthropists in the form of loan reimbursement to offset the large expenses associated with becoming a professional dentist. Estimates suggest that depending on where dental education is garnered, graduates can enter their new profession burdened with $150,000 to $350,000 in dept.
One such program tapping into that reality is called the National Health Service Corps. Since 1972 the Corps have been offering both dentists and physicians tuition reimbursement in exchange for opening practices in underserved communities in the nation. Professionals can earn up to $170,000 in loan repayment for committing and completing a five-year term of service in an area approved by the Corps.
States are also getting into the action by providing dental school grants and loan forgiveness. The AGD reports that ten states have recently introduced this type of legislation. The bills from North Dakota (2146) and South Dakota (H 1246) are on governor's desks waiting for action.
Another approach to the void is authorizing a new type of dental care provider that can either staff dental clinics in the HPSAs or go mobile directly into the communities. The Health Care Reform bill signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2010, is providing funding to decide what type of mid-level position would best fill the dental gap as there are three different options currently fighting for the honor. The current choices are dental therapists (currently being used in Alaska and approved in Minnesota) mid level registered dental hygienists (RDH) (supported by the American Dental Hygienists' Association) and a type of community outreach provider favored by the American Dental Association.
While those policy and program initiatives roll-out, Americans need to take the responsibility of finding a dentist into their own hands. Sine 1985, 1-800-DENTIST has empowered individuals with the ability to find a dentist in their own community with one simple phone call.
The process begins with calling 1-800-DENTIST and speaking directly to an operator. Our phone lines are staffed 24/7 and consumers can begin the process by calling up, stating their location and describing what they are looking for in a dentist. All 1-800-DENTIST members have been screened for dental office location, education, hours of operation and specialties. Annually, 6.5 million patients count on us to help them find a dentist and so can you!