It’s not surprising that a task force asked by the Kansas Board of Regents to determine whether Kansas needs its own dental school would confirm such a need, but is that the best strategy to deal with a shortage of dentists in rural areas of Kansas?
Even members of the Oral Health Care Task Force acknowledged that establishing a dental school would be expensive; a dental school would have startup costs of about $58 million and annual operating costs of about $19.5 million. Before moving forward on such a plan, Kansas should carefully assess whether it would have a significant impact on the number of dentists the state attracts.
Kansas already has a reciprocal agreement that allows Kansas students to pay in-state tuition to attend the dental school at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, which supplies many Kansas dentists. As a short-term strategy, the task force recommended the state purchase slots at UMKC and dental schools in Oklahoma and Nebraska that would be reserved for students who commit to practice in an underserved area of Kansas.
A more expedient and practical solution to the need for more dental care in rural areas may be the certification of dental practitioners who are not dentists but are trained to perform basic tasks, such as filling cavities. That was the reaction the Kansas Dental Project, which consists of health care advocacy organizations, had after learning of the task force’s findings.
“Kansas has a dental access crisis now. We can’t afford to wait,” said Dr. Melinda Miner, a dentist in Hays. “Fort Hays State University has already agreed to educate and train registered dental practitioners in Kansas.” Within just a few years the university could be providing such graduates.
The practitioners would be dental hygienists who obtain additional education and training and pass a comprehensive exam, the Kansas Dental Project said. Their role would be similar to that played by nurse practitioners who provide care under the supervision of physicians. More than 40 state and national health and advocacy organizations have endorsed the RDP proposal, according to the group, but proposals to license dental practitioners in Kansas have failed to gain legislative approval.
Starting a dental school in Kansas would be an expensive proposition and wouldn’t necessarily guarantee a greater supply of dentists, particularly in the rural parts of the state that may not generate enough business to financially support a full dental practice.
A more practical approach for now is to combine approval of dental practitioners in the state with expanded efforts to attract graduates of dental schools in neighboring states.
The state shouldn’t spend millions to create a dental school before exploring other options to fill its dental needs.