Bringing better dental care to rural America

Published November 21, 2016

People in rural areas often struggle to obtain dental care. They report being less likely than others to have seen a dentist in a given year and are less likely to have dental insurance and fluoridated water than people in more populous communities. Residents of rural communities are also more likely to have untreated tooth decay and are more than twice as likely to have lost all their teeth.

Geographic isolation, transportation challenges and a shortage of dental professionals all contribute to the problem. In fact, there are about 29 dentists for every 100,000 rural residents compared to 62 dentists for every 100,000 urban residents. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), nearly 60 percent of rural communities are deemed dental shortage areas. And this problem is only expected to worsen over the coming decade.

Without preventive care and treatment, minor dental problems can become serious very quickly. People who don’t receive preventive dental care often arrive in emergency rooms (ER) in severe pain. In 2012, there were more than two million dental-related visits to hospital ERs, and most of them were for preventable conditions.

But there are problems with relying on the ER. First, many emergency facilities are poorly equipped to deal with complex dental problems, and many ER doctors lack the expertise to best treat dental issues. Second, these avoidable visits are expensive and cost the U.S. healthcare system approximately $1.6 billion annually.

Here’s one emerging solution: Regence BlueCross BlueShield of Oregon and Regence BlueShield of Washington are partnering with Medical Teams International to send mobile dental units into the rural Pacific Northwest, providing critical dental care to nearly 25,000 people in 2016.