Rural Nebraska short on dentists, report shows

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — It can be difficult to get a cavity filled in rural parts of Nebraska because more than half of the state’s 93 counties are short on dentists, according to a new report.

The Center for Health Policy at the University of Nebraska Medical Center says 20 counties don’t have any dentists and another 31 counties have only 1 or two dentists. And the shortage could get worse: 39 percent of Nebraska’s dentists are nearing retirement.

One of the report’s authors, Kim McFarland, says the state needs to figure out ways to encourage more dentists to set up shop in underserved areas.

“We just need to make sure we’re recruiting dental students from rural areas and giving them incentives to practice in rural areas,” said McFarland, who teaches at the University of Nebraska’s dental college.

The state does have programs to give dental students up to $20,000 a year in tuition reimbursement if they work in underserved rural areas, but those incentives lag behind the typical cost of dental college.

“It’s not unusual to have $200,000 or more of student loan debt when dental students get out,” McFarland said. “So they face tremendous pressure to get out and earn.”

McFarland estimates that out of the 45 new dentists entering practice in the state each year, about five or six now go to rural areas.

About 164 million work hours and 51 million school hours are lost because of dental problems every year, according to the American Dental Association.

Jim Stimpson, Ph.D., director of the Center for Health Policy in the UNMC College of Public Health, said it’s not easy for some Nebraskans to schedule the kind of preventive care because the closest dentist may be two hours away.

But it will be difficult to change the rate of decline in dentists because the two dental schools in the state — at the University of Nebraska and Creighton University — are operating at capacity, McFarland said.

Generally, the only counties in the state that aren’t short on dentists are the ones that include sizeable cities and towns.

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