Florida’s Dental Care Shortage

According to the Florida Department of Health, there were 11,362 dentists with active state licenses during the 2017-2018 fiscal year, of which 794 were first-time licenses. Given that the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest estimate of Florida’s population was about 21 million, that means there is one dentist for every 1,848 people.

Clearly, there is a shortage of dental care in the state, which is having a profound effect on underserved communities. The question remains as to how to fill the gap, however. 

What communities are being impacted?

According to the Florida Department of Health, dental health is a looming problem for children in underserved communities. In a study of third grade children in the 2013-2014 school year, the Health Department found that nearly one in four children (23.4 percent) had untreated tooth decay. The report also showed a higher prevalence of untreated decay for non-Hispanic black children (34.8 percent), as well as for those from schools with the highest percentages of students enrolled in school lunch programs (33.5).  

What can be done about Florida’s dental care shortage? 

The Florida Dental Association believes that there are a number of steps that can be taken to alleviate the shortage of dentists. One is to enact legislation that provides new dentists with loan forgiveness for their student loans in exchange for working in public health or in communities where more dental care is critically needed. 

The group has asked the Florida Legislature to appropriate $500,000 in funding for a loan forgiveness program for 10 dental students who would be willing to participate. It is unclear whether there are sufficient resources to fund a more expansive exchange program 

Recently, an advocacy group called Floridians for Dental Access proposed a different approach to addressing Florida’s dental care shortage — dental therapists. The group has asked lawmakers to approve a new health care license that would permit dental therapists to perform activities such as basic clinical dental treatment and preventive services. The dental therapists would only perform such services under the supervision of licensed dentists. The proposal has the support of some Florida lawmakers.

The Commission of Dental Accreditation has established education for standards for dental therapists and a handful of states have authorized dental therapists (Alaska, Arizona, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, and Vermont). However, the Florida Dental Association opposes the licensing of dental therapists citing its concerns over the potential for insufficient supervision and lag times between license approvals and therapists beginning to work.

The Takeaway

Dentists are faced with the challenge of providing quality care while running a successful practice. Meanwhile, there is an urgent need for greater access to dental care in underserved communities not only in Florida but throughout the nation. Ultimately, resolving the shortage of dental care will ultimately require a collaborative approach among the dental community, dental schools, and policymakers.