Pennsylvania Coalition for Oral Health Releases Troubling Workforce Report

A workforce report released by the Pennsylvania Coalition for Oral Health (PCOH) found that since 2015 the Pennsylvania dental workforce has decreased by 10%. The Access to Oral Health Workforce Report also found that many counties are struggling to maintain recommended clinician levels since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Rural areas and Medicaid provider networks have seen the sharpest reductions in care providers.

According to Helen Hawkey, executive director of PCOH and an author of the report, “Pennsylvania’s current rate of dental workforce attrition is not providing opportunities to resupply at the level necessary to meet the need. We found that the state is experiencing year-over-year workforce reductions exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The most alarming finding for dental care access is steep reductions in dental assistants.”

Pennsylvania lost more than 16% of its dental assistant workforce, which declined from 11,640 to 9,720 providers between 2015 and 2021. The commonwealth now ranks within the bottom three nationally. To add more pressure, the number of applications for training programs is lower than in the past.

“Dental assistants are vital to keep dental offices flowing and make it possible for dentists and dental hygienists to see the needed number of patients,” says Hawkey. “We hope that the State Board of Dentistry will move more quickly to evaluate and approve new training programs to enhance the dental assistant workforce.”

Communities will feel the pain beyond the toothaches that come with limited access and delayed care. Dental offices produce economic development that creates jobs and income that is spent in local communities. “Dentistry is a significant contributor to the economy of Pennsylvania,” notes Sean Boynes, DMD, MS, president of Dental Medicine Consulting and the report’s senior investigator. “With the decreased workforce, the state has lost millions in yearly tax revenue and the $1M+ in annual economic activity that each dentist can bring. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania’s rural areas will lose about $73M in annual labor income with these shortages. This will decrease the amount of money available for spending and economic development in those communities.”

Pennsylvania’s rural communities were hit the hardest, losing close to 15% of rural dentists—four times the rate of urban counties. To make matters more difficult, rural Pennsylvania is also experiencing an aging dentist population. Many of the dentists still practicing are past expected retirement age.

The report also exposes the lower pay that Pennsylvania dental care workers receive compared to national numbers. The state ranks 44 out of 53 for dental hygienist wages and 41 out of 50 for dentist salaries. Compared to its six bordering states, Pennsylvania is often ranked within the bottom for wages and salaries.

Revenue and wages were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In response, the U.S. Small Business Administration launched several programs to help offset some of the revenue and wage impacts felt by dental businesses. “The most significant impact was seen with the Payroll Protection Program,” according to Boynes. “Pennsylvania dental businesses received $468M through the program to the benefit of almost 40,000 Pennsylvanians working in dentistry. Without these COVID relief programs, the workforce losses could have been worse.”

The Access to Oral Health Workforce Report—which can be found at www.paoralhealth.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/PCOH-22-Workforce.pdf—is part of ongoing initiatives at the Pennsylvania Coalition for Oral Health aimed to improve the oral health of Pennsylvanians.

ABOUT THE PENNSYLVANIA COALITION FOR ORAL HEALTH: PCOH is a diverse group of leaders from across the state from schools of public health, philanthropic organizations, businesses, dental organizations, health insurance firms, advocacy organizations, state agencies and other champions. Core to our mission and vision is optimal oral health benefits ALL Pennsylvanians. By bringing together oral health advocates and professionals to share the best and most innovative approaches, PCOH serves as the dynamic leading voice to improve oral health across the Commonwealth. To learn more, visit paoralhealth.org.

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