Florida faces a growing shortage of dental care over the next decade, a challenge that will only worsen the $322 million cost of emergency room dental care for Floridians who cannot see a dentist on their own, a new study by The James Madison Institute (JMI) finds. To combat the problem, the report says, state licensing regulations should be reformed to let the market determine the number and types of Florida’s dental care providers, including the relatively new innovation of dental therapists.
The “Dental Workforce Reform in Florida” study, conducted by JMI’s Center for Economic Prosperity, found that Florida lags 16 percent behind the national average in dentists per 100,000 residents, and roughly one in four Floridians – about 5 million people – live in areas of the state where there are documented shortages of dentists. Florida hospital emergency rooms treated almost 167,000 patients for non-traumatic dental conditions in 2016, amounting to more than $322 million – the largest portion paid by the taxpayers through Medicaid.
“The single most impactful way that policymakers can improve the overall trajectory of dental care in Florida is to embrace the innovation present through allowing dental therapists to practice their services,” concludes the study written by Sal Nuzzo, JMI’s vice president of policy, and Jennifer Minjarez, a policy analyst with Texas Public Policy Foundation.
Dental therapists, new to the United States, are dental practitioners who work within a dental team and under the supervision of a dentist. These licensed professionals primarily focus on routine preventive and restorative care and have the ability to provide quality dental care at lower costs for more individuals.
The study found that only 63 percent of Floridians visited a dentist or dental clinic in 2016. Those who do not receive regular dental care are more likely to experience severe dental disorders due to lack of care, forcing them to seek treatment from hospital emergency rooms, which can cost up to five times more than equivalent care offered in dental offices.
“Florida lawmakers should embrace a practical market-based health policy reform that enables dental therapists to meet our state’s diverse demand for dental care,” said Dr. Robert McClure, JMI’s president and CEO. “Implementing new policies that accommodate dental therapy would encourage the development of a highly-skilled health care profession, expand access to care, and improve the health of millions of Floridians.”
The study concluded that producing more dentists is not a viable solution to fixing Florida’s dental care shortage. The state is home to several special populations who often have unique oral health needs. Individuals 65 years and older make up one-fifth of the Florida population and usually have a greater need for dental care. In addition, 30 of the state’s 67 counties are designated rural areas in which only 2.4% of Florida’s general dentists practice.
“As the dental therapy workforce continues to grow in the U.S., policymakers will have the opportunity to reduce costs and expand access to quality dental care for individuals who have been underserved throughout the years,” said Nuzzo. “We found that clinics utilizing dental therapists experienced both individual cost savings and increased patient satisfaction.”
Six states – Alaska, Minnesota, Maine, Vermont, Washington, and Oregon – have recognized the positive relationship between dental therapists and increased access to care. These states have successfully employed licensed dental therapists to combat dentist shortages and meet the needs of their populations. In Florida, however, the Florida Dental Association has opposed the use of dental therapists, arguing that they do not provide the same level of care as licensed dentists.
The James Madison Institute’s policy brief is available HERE.