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California Counties in Dire Need of Dentists

By Sandy Sand     May 29, 2009 in Business
It’s oft heard said: I’d rather have root canal than do something unpleasant, but soon even that might not be an option.
Considering how people shun the dentist, it might not seem like a big deal that there are zero to few dentists in the majority of California counties… that is until you wake up in the middle of the night with a horrific toothache.
For those living in the mountainous county of Alpine in Northern California on the Nevada border, it’s tuff luck! There’s nary a one.
According to a report released by UCLA’s Center for Health Policy Research, the state has a dire shortage of dentists, and not surprisingly, the hardest hit are rural, sparsely populated, less affluent areas of the state.
Conversely, the study, based on one dentist per 5,000 in population, showed that two of the six counties with the highest ratio of dentists to people were Marin and San Mateo counties, north and south of San Francisco, respectively. Interestingly, not only are they among the wealthiest counties, but both are highly desirous places to live.
As in all things money talks. Not unlike all university graduates, men and women leaving dental school take with them a diploma and between $200,000 and $300,000 worth of debt, therefore:
… setting up practice in areas where patients rely on government-sponsored insurance that pays only 30- to 40-cents on the dollar can be hard, said Cathy Mudge, chief administrative officer of the California Dental Association. "They need to be able to repay that loan," she said.
As an example, in Hollister -- located in San Benito County -- the UCLA data shows that there are only five working dentists, who serve nearly 58,000 residents.
Dr. Mark Stephens said that so far he's been able to handle the demands made on his practice.
"If someone calls with a toothache, we try to see them the same day, but some offices don't see them for a week or two," Stephens said. "If I have to work through lunch or stay late, I will."
Stephens added that he thought there are a few dentists still practicing locally, but in the last several months, his dentist brother sold his practice and another dentist died.
Newly graduated dentists are being encouraged to move to and set up practices in needy areas.
To that end, the dental association’s foundation is offering a loan repayment program in exchange for a three-year commitment to practice in an underserved area. During that time, the foundation covers the new dentists’ loan payments, Mudge said.
For Dr. James Forester, who practices in a clinic in Paso Robles, said the foundation pays about $35,000 a year in loan payments, and the clinic where he works pays “significantly less” than what he could make elsewhere.
But, Forester said:
"For me to be able to work in a population where people really need me is ideal. Who else would be here if I wasn't here? It's a great opportunity, but also a responsibility. These people are here. They need care too."
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