At the Towamensing Township dental office of Dr. D. Scott Aldinger, receptionists typically field a half-dozen calls each day from people who are looking to be seen.
Maybe the callers are new to the area, maybe their dentist has retired, or maybe they’ve never been to a dentist before.
But whatever the reason, Aldinger guarantees other dental practices across the region – and even the nation – are receiving similar calls.
Folks are looking for dentists, and quite often nowadays, they can’t find one who is accepting new patients, Aldinger said.
“Dentistry doesn’t have what medicine has with 24-hour walk-in urgent care centers. If you don’t have a family doctor, or you’re new to the area, and now you have a fever, you can go to urgent care. We don’t have that in dentistry,” he said.
In Pennsylvania, there are 157 areas designated as Health Professional Shortage areas for dental services. It means that those areas don’t meet the population-to-provider ratio of 5,000 to 1, according to the U.S. Health Resources and Service Administration.
Carbon, Schuylkill, Lehigh and Northampton counties are listed as shortage areas.
An estimated 1.875 million Pennsylvanians live in shortage areas, where only 39.2% of their dental needs are met. In order to serve the population, about 305 additional practitioners are needed, according to administration data. It is up from 2020, when the state had 149 shortage areas, and had met 47.86% of the needs.
Aldinger believes there are a number of reasons some can’t find care, from dental school closures to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The COVID, I think, pushed it to its peak,” he said. “Many older dentists retired early instead of dealing with the onslaught of new regulations. We also lost approximately 3 to 4 months of appointments due to government-enforced closures. Those lost appointments can never be made up.”
Much also has to do with the growing number of graduates who are opting to join corporate practices or chains rather than opening up their own, he said.
“When I send my employees home at 5 o’clock, I take off my dentist hat and I do payroll. I pay the taxes, I order supplies. I take care of the building, I go out and sweep the cobwebs off the front door – all the things these younger guys might not want to do,” said Aldinger, a member of the Pennsylvania Dental Association who’s been practicing since 1982. “They want to come in, punch a time clock and go home.”
And so, Aldinger said, they’ll join a corporate practice such as Aspen Dental.
“They attract recent graduates who enjoy working for someone else instead of shouldering the responsibility of owning a practice,” he said. “The problem is that many of these corporations focus on big towns, not Lansford, Summit Hill or Palmerton. These younger dentists pass up an older practice that is for sale and these older practices often just close the doors.”
The Rural Health Information Hub, which is funded by the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy, also found a shortage of dental care access across the commonwealth and nation.
According to its latest survey, all of Schuylkill County is experiencing a shortage, while parts of Carbon, Lehigh and Northampton counties are seeing difficulty to access. Monroe County is one of only four counties not impacted, the data notes.
Dental hygienists are also difficult to come by. The American Dental Hygienists Association recently reported that 4 out of 10 dental practices are trying to hire them.
Aldinger said a number of dental schools closed their doors in the late 1990s.
“Just one school closing results in the loss of 100 dental school graduates per year. Recently there have been a few new schools opening but it will take years to recover,” he explained.
He said the region recently lost two longtime dentists to retirement. Another died recently.
“That’s at least 1,000 people (per office) that have to find somewhere else to go,” he said.
Others seek new care after they find their longtime dentist is no longer accepting their insurance, he said.
Aldinger stopped bringing in new patients – unless they were family members or referrals – about six months ago. It got to the point where the practice was becoming inundated.
While he doesn’t have a guaranteed solution to finding care, he encouraged people who “have” dentists to keep their appointments.
“Many offices are now instituting missed appointment fees and dismissing patient from the practice if they do this more than twice,” he said.
Finding a new dentist often requires persistence, he said. He suggested asking a family member or neighbor for suggestions, since some will accept relatives or referrals.
Anyone with a major problem should visit an urgent care center, where they might receive medication and instructions to see a dentist. While they might be able to book an appointment with a corporate/chain dentist, Aldinger said they should only get what is absolutely necessary done – and continue their search for a home dentist.