A lot has changed in the field of dentistry over the years. One thing that will always stay the same is the need for each and every person to have access to a high-quality, licensed dentist.
As health care remains a hot-button issue nationally, Oregon’s legislators have also been focused on access to health care here at home.
As a supporting member of organized dentistry and as a specialist practicing endodontics for over 35 years, I believe that access to oral health care needs to be at the top of our priority list.
There are many barriers to accessing oral health care, particularly in our rural communities. When faced with the prospect of missing out on a day’s pay by driving to the other side of the county for a dental cleaning, filling a cavity or root canal treatment, many people don’t see much of a choice.
Rural residents are also more likely to avoid going to the dentist out of fear, cultural barriers or an inability to pay for services. Education and preventative measures are less likely to be present in the lives of children living in areas outside of our metropolitan areas.
Here in Klamath Falls, we are fortunate to have our fair share of dental health care providers. The same is not true for all of Klamath County or for our neighbors in Lake and Jackson counties.
Oregon’s oral health care providers are not equitably distributed throughout the more rural areas of our state. According to a recent study conducted by the Health Policy Institute, we have more than enough dentists to serve our entire population. However, they are not always located near the patients who need them most.
I moved to Klamath Falls and opened my endodontics practice in 2006 because I was drawn to the lifestyle it offers. My love for horses, the outdoors and the high desert climate made my decision an easy one. Moving to a rural area can be a very difficult choice for recent dental school graduates. Often faced with crippling debt, the easier choice is to settle down in a populated city where you know you’ll be able to pay back student loans.
We need to make every effort to not only get patients to the dentist, but also to get dentists, and oral health education, to the families that need them.
Thankfully, the Legislature this year extended Oregon’s rural practitioner tax credit, a program that is vital to ensuring rural Oregonians have access to doctors and dentists, but there is still more to be done now that the legislative session has ended.
We must continue to provide incentives that make it possible for dentists to serve the rural communities that need our services by providing loan repayment and forgiveness programs for new graduates, and by making it more affordable for providers to work with patients covered by the Oregon Health Plan through increasing reimbursement rates. The resulting increase in OHP providers will continue helping us to improve access to care.
All Oregonians, including those in rural Oregon towns, deserve to have access to high-quality, licensed oral health care providers.