Vitals can help you find a doctor or dentist near you with just the qualifications you’re looking for and patient reviews that describe those intangible qualities you want your doctor to have. Unfortunately, you may have to travel farther than you’d like to see the great dentist we helped you find. That’s because large sections of the country – particularly rural areas – are facing a dentist shortage.
These “dental deserts,” as they’re called, are places where there is only one dentist for every 3,000 residents, making it extremely difficult to obtain regular dental care. According to the federal government, there are more than 4,500 dental deserts, and they represent areas where dental health is in serious decline. Dental disease is considered the largest unmet health need in the US for both adults and children.
The poor, very young, and very old are especially affected by this crisis. Today, about 25 percent of Americans age 65 and over have had all of their teeth extracted – an alarming number on its own. But when you look at areas that are particularly affected by the dental shortage, that number rises to between 30 and 40 percent.
The reason these dental deserts exist is because dentists are choosing to set up practices in areas that are both heavily populated and with a low poverty margin. Without a large enough population, they don’t see enough patients in order to generate enough income to pay back their enormous dental school debts. Additionally, in areas with higher poverty levels, residents are less likely to have dental insurance or to be able to afford the out-of-pocket cost for dental care.
In fact, there are 80 million more Americans without dental insurance than without medical insurance, and Medicare doesn’t cover dental care. But even if you do have dental insurance, most dental plans and Medicaid (which covers dental care for children and some procedures for adults) don’t cover nearly enough of the cost, making it impossible for many insured Americans to afford adequate dental care.
Possible solutions to the problem include federally funded clinics that would be staffed by dentists who are willing to practice in these under-served areas and training a new class of health professionals called dental therapists who would have the same basic skills as dentists and be able to perform them at a lower cost. However, many dentists are unwilling to commit to these clinics because of the need to pay back their dental school loans, and dental therapists can’t handle the more complex dental health issues many residents of these areas have.
Do you live in a dental desert? Tell us how you cope below.
Sources: pbs.org and nationaljournal.com