Missouri desperately needs more dental professionals

New dental school in southwest Missouri aims to tackle the problem
Missouri desperately needs more dental professionals.
Published: Jul. 26, 2023 at 8:30 PM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - A new dental school will open in southwest Missouri in a few weeks. And Missouri desperately needs more dental professionals. The entire state is in a Dental Health Care Profession Shortage area. Only California is in worse shape.

We visited a former grocery store in Springfield, where people aren’t shopping for bread, milk, or eggs. They need dental care.

“This was the first place that we could get Noah in,” explained Jody Livingston of Carl Junction.

After an hour-and-a-half drive to Springfield, her son’s ride to the operating room at Jordan Valley Community Health Center for a root canal is the shortest trip of the day. And the end of a long process that started with a chipped tooth.

“We got referred to Joplin first. And we set that appointment up. And then, I started calling around to see if I could get in anywhere else faster because it was still going to take a very long time to get in. And this has been a three-month process at this point,” says Livingston.

Missouri needs more dentists. “From 1960 through 1984, three dental schools (Washington University, St. Louis University, and UMKC School of Dentistry) produced an average of approximately 240 dentists per year,” Lisa Cox of The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services wrote in an email to KY3. “Between 1979 and 1989, Washington University and St. Louis University closed their dental schools. In the mid-1980s, UMKC cut its class size from 160 to 80.”

“By 1990, many more dentists in Missouri started retiring than were being replaced by graduating dentists,” Cox wrote. “In the 12 years between 1990 and 2002, Missouri lost approximately 642 dentists practicing in Missouri. In the 19 years since, we have recovered only about half of the dentists we lost. In that same period, the population in Missouri increased by more than 1 million people. The result was a 35 percent increase in the average workload on each Missouri Dentist.”

“What we’re finding is in rural areas where there are some more barriers,” says the Director of Pediatric Dentistry at Jordan Valley Community Health, Dr. Ashley Popejoy. “It does seem to be pretty common for patients to be referred from far away. We do get referrals from Columbia, Jefferson City, St. Louis, and the Kansas City area as well.”

Jordan Valley Community Health Center is a Federally Qualified Health Center and is considered a safety net provider in Missouri. The agency’s community health care workers are available to help patients with the things in life that could create a barrier to receiving care, like transportation, housing, food insecurity, and insurance. But even this agency is in the market for dental professionals.

“I am always looking for great dentists,” says the Executive Vice President of Oral Health at Jordan Valley, Dr. Nick Pfannenstiel.

Help is on the way. Kansas City University’s brand-new College of Dental Medicine opens in August. And Jadyn Pace will go from the Springfield dental office’s front desk to the Joplin campus’ first class.

If someone had been missing a tooth, and you get to, you know, restore that for them or bring their smile back,” reflected KCU Dental Student Pace. “That’s something that I found that I really loved being a part of, and I wanted to be the provider in that role.”

It’s believed if we train them in Missouri, they’ll stay in Missouri.

“Hopefully, the rural location of that Joplin dental school will attract those same dental students who want to practice in rural areas as they graduate,” says Dr. Popejoy:

Jadyn may be four years from graduation. But she’s penciled in the Show Me State for her future practice.

“The goal would be to be a provider in this area, potentially in a rural community that didn’t have a dentist before,” says Pace.

And the nervous mom in a waiting room is grateful she found an oral surgeon. But back home in Carl Junction, there’s a growing need that can’t be fixed fast enough.

“I know we just got a letter saying that his dentist at Carthage Access has moved to somewhere else. So hopefully, a lot of people are enrolling in dental school,” concluded Livingston.

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services told us about other efforts to recruit dental professionals. “The Missouri Office of Rural Health and Primary Care is working with dentists to provide loan repayment and work with contractors on recruitment and retention efforts for this workforce population,” explained Cox. “The Primary Care Resource Initiative for Missouri (PRIMO) Student Loan Program offers forgivable loans to primary care physicians, dentists, dental hygienists, and psychiatrists who agree to practice in an underserved area in Missouri upon completion of their degrees.”

But we won’t see an impact anytime soon from the new school. The students from KCU-Joplin can practice after four years of dental school. Some may go on to a residency program and specialize. So, that would take a couple of extra years of training.

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