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The State of the Dental Workforce and Care for Underserved Populations

The State of the Dental Workforce and Care for Underserved Populations

The State of the Dental Workforce and Care for Underserved Populations

Access to dental care is something many of us take for granted. Employers typically offer some form of dental insurance as part of an employee benefit package, but not all do so. For those with jobs that do not offer these benefits, the cost of dental care can be prohibitive. In fact, the costs associated with dental care and the lack of access to dental insurance are barriers that are difficult or even impossible to overcome by low-income families.

Some states are addressing dental barriers in an effort to help more people receive the oral healthcare they need. In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the barriers those with financial or physical disabilities may have and introduce solutions on the local and state level to help more people receive dental treatment.

Michigan: A Case Study in Dental Care

According to state-compiled statistics, the state of Michigan currently has nearly 8,000 licensed dental practitioners. Most are willing to receive patients – particularly children – under Medicaid coverage. It is estimated that 8 of every 10 dentists in the state accept child patients under the state’s Healthy Kids Dental program, which is funded by Medicaid and state contributions. In simple terms, dentists are generally reimbursed for their costs.

The same cannot be said of Michigan adults in the Medicaid program. This portion of the program only reimburses dental providers approximately 20 percent of the treatment costs, driving dentists away from participating. Low-income people or those without adequate/available dental insurance are therefore unable to receive dental care except in very limited cases.

Additional Barriers to Dental Care

Many people with disabilities require special consideration when receiving dental care. Lack of funding in state-administered programs and Medicaid can create insurmountable hurdles further complicate the issue. Commonly, people with disabilities require sedation before undergoing dental treatment, and this necessitates access to a hospital’s operating room. Dental sedation, unfortunately, is reimbursed at a much lower rate than comparable medical sedation, limiting hospital and operating room access for the treating dentist. The end result is that patients with disabilities cannot receive care, or may have to wait so long that their oral health condition becomes severe.

Solutions on the Horizon?

Noting the lack of access to appropriate dental care among underprivileged and disabled people, several organizations have risen to the challenge of providing care. Dental schools often provide low- or no-cost dental health services, and volunteer dentists offer their services to the elderly and the disabled. A growing number of dental associations have also begun to create legislative solutions to ease the problem.

In Michigan, the Michigan Dental Association has pushed for increased treatment freedom for dental hygienists and registered dental assistants, which will allow them to practice basic dental care in underserved communities. Minnesota has also implemented a similar system, giving dental therapists an increased role in patient care. These initiatives utilize the dental workforce in more efficient and patient-oriented ways, paving the way for care delivery to those who need it most. Much work needs to be done in this arena, however, and it will take like-minded dental organizations and state/federal legislators to develop comprehensive care solutions in states across the U.S.

Article brought to you by Thomas E. Cooke DDS

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