There are several obstacles that can prevent those in need of health care from getting treatment — lack of insurance being chief among them.
But for many people in Kansas, not having insurance isn’t the only impediment to getting a root canal or even a routine cavity filled. There just aren’t enough dentists to serve the state’s needs, especially in rural western Kansas, as the Journal-World’s WellCommons.com website reported last week. Because of the distance they must drive, many Kansans have to take time off of work or take their children out of school to see a dentist.
Fourteen counties in Kansas do not have a dentist. Another 14 counties do not have enough dentists to serve their county populations. A county is considered to be appropriately served if there is at least one dentist per 2,100 people. Douglas County has 63 dentists, or one per 1,847 people.
So, what’s the answer to solving this problem?
The Kansas Health Consumer Coalition, Kansas Association for the Medically Underserved and Kansas Action for Children have partnered to seek solutions to the shortage of dentists. The agencies should be commended for their initiative.
One of their suggestions is to pursue legislation next year to permit midlevel dental providers to practice in Kansas. The providers are the dental equivalent of a nurse practitioner, someone who isn’t a doctor but has the training, education and license to treat certain illnesses. Dental therapists who operate in other states are licensed to fill cavities and do simple extractions, among other things.
The Kansas agencies are determining what kind of training a dental therapist would need and are looking at other states and countries that use dental therapists.
It is worth pursuing this as a means to supplement the state’s dental ranks and provide a cost-effective treatment alternative that allows dentists to concentrate on more complex cases.
However, most patients likely would rather be treated by a dentist. So, a long-term solution must also be pursued for ensuring Kansas has more dentists, especially in underserved rural areas.
Kansas needs to recruit more dentists and grow more of its own, especially those who live in the underserved areas and would want to practice there as well. Kansas doesn’t have any dental schools, but it has a reciprocal agreement that allows Kansas students to pay in-state tuition at the dental school at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Perhaps it should explore reciprocal agreements with other schools in neighboring states or other incentives for Kansas students who want to study dentistry.
Kansas also needs to consider offering bonuses and other incentives to attract dentists to places with the greatest need and keep them there long enough to repay a portion of the state’s investment.
The most important goal is to make sure all Kansans have access to reliable, affordable and convenient dental care.