The only two dental schools in Nebraska - at Creighton University and the University of Nebraska - are cranking out young dentists at full capacity, but state residents who live in rural areas may still have to drive as much as two hours to receive basic dental care.
The Associated Press reported that more than half of the state's 93 counties have too few dentists to serve residents. Where counties have sizeable cities and towns, there doesn't appear to be a problem in getting dental work done, according to a report from the university's Center for Health Policy. But in rural sections of the state, residents are greatly underserved.
"The state of Nebraska designates 48 counties as general dentistry shortage areas, and 20 counties don't even have a dentist," said Jim Stimpson, Ph.D., director of the Center for Health Policy in the UN College of Public Health. "Even more alarming, the study found that there has been a steady decline in the number of practicing dentists in the state over the last five years."
In addition, 39 percent of current dentists in Nebraska are nearing retirement. Of the estimated 45 new dentists who start to practice each year, only about five or six set up shop in rural areas, the report stated.
When they can get dental care, people still face the high cost of dentistry services and often have no dental insurance to cover it. However, an affordable alternative that is helping countless families is the availability of discount dental plans, which allow them to obtain the oral healthcare they need at lower cost for a wide variety of services.
Incentives are needed
One way to increase the number of dentists willing to practice in rural counties is to encourage students from those areas to return to work there once they've graduated from dental school.
While state-sponsored programs currently reimburse dental students as much as $20,000 in annual tuition if they agree to work in underserved sections of Nebraska, the cost of a dental education far exceeds that amount.
The report's co-author Kim McFarland, D.D.S., an associate professor in the UN Department of Oral Biology, told the AP it's common for newly-minted dentists to have racked up $200,000 in student loans by the time they graduate. To address that level of debt, she said new dentists face significant pressure to start practicing immediately, but in cities where they are likely to earn higher salaries than in rural areas where they may earn less.
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