Do You Live in a “Dental Desert”?

Do You Live in a "Dental Desert"?

Dental assistants looking for jobs typically focus on improving their qualifications for landing a position, but if you’re having trouble finding employment, it may have less to do with you than with where you’re looking. In some states, a large percentage of the population lives in areas without adequate access to professional dental care, known as Dental Health Professional Shortage Areas (DHPSAs) or “dental deserts.”

As you might expect, job opportunities for dental assistants and other dental professionals in DHPSAs are limited. In fact, in order to be designated as a dental desert, there has to be 5,000 or more residents for every dental practice (or a 4,000 to 1 ratio if the population has an “unusually high need”), as well as no access to dental care in surrounding areas. Although there is a need for more dentists and dental workers in a DHPSA, the number is low because dentists, who typically graduate with a high amount of school debt, tend to set up practices in high-income, high-population areas in order to maximize their profits. (Low income increases the chances that a patient will rely on Medicaid, which pays dentists less than standard medical insurance.) Because of this, lower-income individuals are more than twice as likely to have untreated cavities than those with higher incomes.

Currently, there are about 4,600 DHPSAs in the United States with about 50 million people in them — up from 33.3 million people in 2011. California has the most dental deserts (over 300), but Mississippi has the largest percentage of its population — nearly 60% — living in DHPSAs. The next closest state is Louisiana, with about 50% living in an HPSA, and New Mexico is third, at 38%.

So, how do you find out if you live in a dental desert? The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provides tools to help. The HPSA by State & County tool allows you to specify a county and lists all the DHPSAs within it, while the HPSA & MUA/P by Address tool allows you to enter an address to determine if it is located inside a DHPSA. With every practice newly opened or closed, however, the data changes, so check the tools frequently. After all, there are efforts underway to reduce the number of dental deserts — from legislation to increase Medicaid coverage to nonprofit organizations providing dental care.

Although it would take around 6,600 additional dentists nationwide to eliminate all the current DHPSAs, the good news is that the number of dentists is expected to increase over the next several years — meaning the opportunities for dental assistants will expand as well.

(Sources: CA.gov, PBS, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Kaiser Family Foundation)