Dentist Shortage Coming to a State Near You: The Kansas Problem

There’s a storm brewing in Kansas—but it has nothing to do with the weather. Rather, it’s a heated debate about how to fix Kanas’ dentist shortage. Though the problem has been widely acknowledged for a few years, the Kansas legislature has yet to take action.

The issue in Kansas is fairly simple. Dentists in the state tend to congregate in the major metropolitan areas where they can be sure of making a profit. This tendency, however, leaves Kansas’ sparsely populated western counties with a serious lack of dental care. Twelve western counties currently have no residing dentist or dental clinic at all.

The rising costs of medical school have dental graduates increasingly worried about paying off their student debts. Moreover, new dental practices come with huge startup costs. Opening a clinic in less affluent, less populated areas simply doesn’t make sense for most dental school graduates.

To provide these areas with reliable dental care, a group called the Kansas Dental Project has proposed the creation of a new type of dental worker: the Registered Dental Practitioner (RDP). RDPs would be able to fill cavities, extract teeth and perform a number of other basic dental procedures—all at a lower cost than a fully trained dentist.

RDPs would spend their first 500 hours of practice under direct supervision of a dentist, performing dental procedures in the dental office where they can be closely observed. Afterwards, they would be able to open outreach clinics under “general supervision.” These outreach clinics, say RDP supporters, could be located in small towns and communities denied to typical dentists for cost reasons.

The Kansas Dental Association, however, has opposed the RDP idea since the beginning. The RDPs, it argues, would not have the adequate training to operate safely. Moreover, it would create a two-tiered system of dental care—one for the urban areas and one for the rural.

The Kansas Dental Association is in favor of expanding the role of dental hygienists. It has suggested allowing specially trained dental hygienists to provide temporary fillings, adjust dentures and extract really loose baby teeth. But supporters of the Kanas Dental Project aren’t convinced this fix will work. It may help with some of the costs of dental care, but many counties would still be without a basic dental care provider.

The one thing that the Kansas Dental Association and the Kansas Dental Project do agree on is the fact that Kansas needs to take action now. What was once a problem is now a major crisis. Politicians, dentists and patients need to reach a solution that provides affordable dental care to not just urban communities but to all communities, regardless of location, population density or average income level.