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Physicians Fill Gaps Left by Dental Deserts

Dental deserts have long been a problem in the United States, where private practice dentists, most of whom carry tremendous dental school debt, tend to set up shop in cities and suburbs composed of residents who can afford their services. This leaves rural and low-income areas with few to no providers. This gap in dental services can lead to severe health consequences for those living in these dental deserts. Now, physicians are stepping up to fill this need.

Access to dental care is a major issue for many low-income, minority, and elderly Americans. The Health Policy Institute notes that rural areas have 50% fewer dentists per 100,000 residents compared to urban areas. In addition to the fact that many new dental graduates choose not to practice in underserved communities, dentists who accept patients covered by government insurance plans like Medicaid are few and far between. Medicaid’s limited dental reimbursements and its focus on emergency procedures over routine preventive care further exacerbate the problem.

Innovative Solutions: Integrating Dental Care into Primary Care

To combat the lack of dental care, some primary care physicians are now filling in the gaps. Federally qualified health centers are integrating dental services within their systems, making dental care a part of the same visit for the patient. Mobile clinics are also increasing access to dental services in hard-to-reach rural areas.

According to an article published in The Week, providing dental services during medical visits increases the frequency of fluoride application and improves parents’ knowledge of caring for their children’s teeth. This integration positively impacts children’s health, education, and confidence, as poor dental health is linked to increased school absences and social issues.

More integration between medical and dental care is no doubt a positive development. However, are there inherent risks? Do physicians receive enough training to provide adequate preventive dental care? Are referrals available for those patients who need more extensive dental care? Are dental providers losing out on potential patient relationships? What role may dental hygienists and dental therapists play in primary care settings? Click here to read more.

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