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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Access to Dental Care: Why States Should Expand Their Oral Health Workforce

Lydia Mitts

Former Associate Director of Affordability Initiatives

There is a growing childhood epidemic in this country: Tooth decay is now the most common chronic illness among children. The effects of this epidemic are wide-ranging. Children lose 51 million school hours each year due to dental-related illness. And a study in southern California found that untreated dental disease may also interfere with children’s ability to learn: The study found that children with reported tooth pain were four times more likely than their peers to have lower than average grades. 

This epidemic disproportionally affects low-income kids. In 2011, more than 14 million low-income children went without dental care. 

Many Low-Income Families Don’t Have Access to Dental Providers

For low-income children and their families, cost is just one of the barriers to getting the dental care they need. Finding a dental provider can also pose a significant barrier. A 2010 Government Accountability Office report found that in many states, few dentists accept Medicaid patients. 

On top of this, our country also has a severe oral health workforce shortage, which is more acute in low-income and rural areas. Nearly 49 million Americans live in communities with inadequate numbers of dental providers. 

How can states improve low-income families’ access to dental care? 

Mid-Level Dental Providers Can Expand Access to Care

Using mid-level dental providers, like dental therapists, is one promising strategy to expand access to care in underserved communities. Dental therapists provide routine preventive and restorative dental services under the general supervision of a dentist. The care they give has been shown to be high-quality and patient-centered. 

Families USA Launches Initiative to Improve Access to Dental Care

This month, Families USA launched its Access to Dental Care Initiative, which focuses on advancing efforts to improve access to dental care and expand the use of mid-level providers such as dental therapists in more states. Dental therapists already provide essential patient-centered care to previously underserved communities in Alaska and Minnesota. And Maine recently passed legislation allowing dental therapists to provide care within dental practices. 

It’s imperative that more states begin to address how they can expand their oral health workforce to meet the needs of all of their residents. Improving children’s oral health will involve many policy and public health changes, and strategies to expand the oral health workforce are a critical component of these changes.