Policy Brief Examines Dental Provider Shortage in California

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California is experiencing a shortage of dentists, in part because more are opting to practice out of state, according to a policy brief by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, the Los Angeles Examiner reports (Wuffson, Los Angeles Examiner, 3/26).

Details of Dentist Shortage

The policy brief also noted that the average dentist-patient ratio in the state in 2012 was 3.9 dentists per 5,000 patients, compared with 3.1 dentists per 5,000 patients nationally (UCLA Center for Health Policy Research policy brief, March 2014). However, certain regions of the state had a disproportionate ratio of dentists to the general population.

For instance, the report found that San Joaquin Valley has the highest population of newly licensed dentists, but the lowest provider-patient ratio, with 2.4 dentists per 5,000 patients. In contrast, there are 5.1 dentists per 5,000 patients in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Meanwhile, the number of recently licensed dentists who choose to practice specialized dentistry increased to 13% in 2012, a 6% increase from 2008.

Researchers also found that 25% of licensed dentists in the state have been practicing for 30 years or more and are close to retirement age.

In addition, the brief found that the number of dentists licensed in California who chose to work outside the state increased by 6% from 2008 to 2012.

Specifically, 86% of dentists who were licensed in California within the previous five years chose to practice in the state -- down 10% from 2008. As a result, recently licensed dentists make up a smaller share of the state's overall supply of dentists.

Reasons for Dentists Moving Out-of-State

According to the report, there are several reasons newly licensed dentists are choosing to pursue careers outside the state, including:

  • The economic downturn;
  • Elimination of Medi-Cal dental reimbursements; and
  • Prevalence of longer-practicing dentists in wealthier, more-populated areas.

Medi-Cal is California's Medicaid program (Los Angeles Examiner, 3/26).

Reaction

Nadereh Pourat, director of research at the UCLA center and lead author of the study, said, "There is a lopsided distribution of dentists," adding, "They cluster in areas like San Francisco and Southern California, but don't settle in rural and underserved areas."

Pourat added, "Good access to dental care depends on having a robust supply of new dentists in California," and "[w]e need a new generation of dentists to replace the many dentists who are close to retirement" (UCLA release, 3/26).

In order to motivate dentists to practice in the state -- specifically in under-populated areas -- the brief recommends:

  • Assisting dental school graduates with loan repayments;
  • Increasing Medi-Cal reimbursement rates; and
  • Offering small business loans (Los Angeles Examiner, 3/26).

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