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Dental worker shortage hits low-income and rural communities hardest

Technology could help, an expert says, but dentists are slow to adopt it.
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3 min read

The dental industry—like other parts of healthcare—is facing significant staffing challenges.

The US is in need of nearly 10,000 dental professionals and has more than 6,800 health professional shortage areas (HPSAs), which the US Department of Health and Human Services defines as “a geographic area, population, or facility with a shortage of primary care, dental, or mental health providers and services.”

While the shortage of dental workers is affecting states around the country, it doesn’t affect all regions equally. Of those 6,800 HPSAs, 4,571 are “rural” and 233 are “partially rural,” according to data from the Health Resources and Services Administration.

Marko Vujicic, chief economist and VP of the health policy institute at the American Dental Association (ADA), said the shortage of dentists and dental professionals in rural areas is a “significant issue.” He added that underserved populations, particularly Medicaid beneficiaries, also lack access.

“If somebody asked me if there was a shortage of dentists, I would say no,” Vujicic told Healthcare Brew. “There’s plenty in metropolitan areas; there’s not enough in the areas that have the highest need.”

The number of dentists has risen over the last 10 years or so, according to the CDC. And while staffing numbers took a hit during the pandemic, the ADA reported in March that the number of students enrolled in predoctoral and advanced dentistry programs jumped last fall.

Vujicic said that this is a good sign, noting that it will take a few years for the graduates to trickle into the industry.

“However, in rural areas, dentists per population is actually trending down, which means we’re disproportionately putting dentists in more urban areas—areas with already saturated markets—and in fact, we’re doing worse over time when it comes to rural and underserved populations,” he said.

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In terms of staffing, the landscape looks worse, Vujicic said. A 2022 ADA study found that nine in 10 practices reported it was “extremely” or “very” challenging to recruit dental assistants and dental hygienists. One-third of dentists also reported not having full schedules due to vacant staff.

New technologies could help alleviate the staffing shortfall, Vujicic said.

Tools like automated X-ray readers “streamline workflows and make the dental team more efficient clinically,” he said. But Vujicic added that the “real opportunity” to alleviate pressure on dental staff is technology that works on the administrative side.

Some of these tools include technology to help patients check in, fill out forms at home instead of on paper in the office, and deal with pre-authorization.

Vujicic said he’s surprised these technologies haven’t been taken up faster, adding that in an ADA poll of dentists last year, respondents were more likely to say they were adjusting to staffing shortages by taking on more admin duties than using technology.

“I don’t have a good answer as to why the take-up of these innovations and these tech tools isn’t faster. I will tell you comfortably, though, that’s not sustainable,” Vujicic said. “In the next two to five years, this is almost going to become standard practice, using these automated tools. There’s simply way too much pressure on margins; there’s pressure to be more efficient. Practices are going to have to invest in these.”

Navigate the healthcare industry

Healthcare Brew covers pharmaceutical developments, health startups, the latest tech, and how it impacts hospitals and providers to keep administrators and providers informed.