A recent University of Virginia study by Terance Rephann of the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service and Tanya Wanchek of the School of Medicine shows what I see firsthand every day in communities throughout Virginia — the significant disparities in dental care for children. Because of the lack of dentists in Virginia, I travel to our different offices to meet the need.
A particular case that stands out for me is that of a 7-year-old boy I saw last year. The boy was starting school, and his father brought him to see me. It was his first dental visit. All 24 of the child’s teeth were discolored from tooth decay and cavities and needed treatment. Dental care was not available or considered a priority where they lived before.
When we began his treatment, he would not talk, much less smile, and his schoolmates taunted him about the condition of his teeth. Since he did not talk, he was having trouble performing in class.
I arranged my schedule so I could specifically see this child. Once the treatments were finished, he hugged my neck and with a big smile said, “Thank you, Dr. Nichols!” He happily went on to school, and his father reported that his participation in class dramatically improved as a result. Moments like these make my work worthwhile and reaffirm the fact that more needs to be done to close the dental divide in Virginia.
The lack of dental care leads to more sick days at home from school, and, as children grow older, poor oral health can lead to significant health issues such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes. These conditions result in even higher healthcare costs.
Virginia’s Smiles for Children program has been successful in expanding participation of dentists in Medicaid and improving utilization of dental services by children in our state, but challenges still exist.
Presently there are no dental clinics that act as safety nets for families in 62 Virginia localities. That means 15 percent of Virginians continue to live in areas with a shortage of dental care providers, mostly in the state’s western and southern regions. Bottom line, there are just not enough dentists to go around.
Fortunately the availability of care is improving. Virginia has seen the emergence of dental service organizations over the past decade as a way to provide high-quality dental care to underserved communities. DSOs, which harness superior and efficient business practices and the expertise of committed dentists, are providing care to Virginia’s underserved children and adults.
Without the distractions of running a business and the challenges of launching a start-up, DSO dentists and dental professionals can focus on providing excellent dental care for their patients. Furthermore, these group arrangements allow company-wide, close oversight to monitor quality, appropriate treatment and stringent auditing procedures that can exceed even state regulatory requirements. Practice groups often become valued fixtures in communities they serve. Allowing committed dentists to do what they love, while management professionals ensure the business operations are sustainable, is a model that provides a promising future for generations of children who deserve quality dental care.
Addressing the Virginia’s dental divide means collectively pursuing innovative avenues to ensure access to care in underserved areas. Working together, we will improve lives by providing high-quality dental care in a compassionate environment.