Dentistry long has been treated as a separate element of health care, even though oral health is crucial to overall well-being.
It’s also a distinct business, with different cost structures and insurance protocols than those that apply to general health care.
For various reasons, Pennsylvania faces a shortage of dentists in rural areas. According to the Pennsylvania Coalition for Oral Health, there are half as many dentists per capita in the state’s vast rural areas as in suburbs and cities.
The 2020 census found that rural Pennsylvania has experienced a major population bleed. By percentage, Susquehanna County’s 11.4% population loss was the highest. By number of people, Westmoreland County experienced the greatest loss, with 10,506 fewer residents than in 2010.
That does not bode well for any business.
Rural areas also tend to be less affluent than many urban and suburban areas. Medicaid covers dental care, but relatively few dentists accept it. About 90% of pediatricians, OB/GYNs and family practice physicians accept Medicaid payments, for example, but only 25% of dentists do so. About 50% of children and 80% of Pennsylvanians with Medicaid coverage never see a dentist, according to the oral health coalition.
Other states also have rural dentist shortages. Pennsylvania should borrow some of their ideas.
Several states have established programs to interest rural high school students in dentistry, and help mitigate the costs of their undergraduate and dental school educations in exchange for a commitment to practice in their home areas. They also provide incentives for dental schools to accept more rural students. Pennsylvania has just three dental schools — at Temple University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Pittsburgh.
The state also could create incentives for existing dental practices to expand into rural areas.
Helen Hawkey of the oral health coalition compared the situation to lack of mental health care. “…With oral health it’s almost similar to the mental health piece where you’re thought of as lower class if you are having trouble getting access to dental care,” she told the Center Square.
The Legislature and the dental care industry should work on providing more readily accessible oral health care in rural areas.
— Wilkes-Barre Citizens’ Voice