California Experiences Dentist Shortage

The Golden State is no longer appealing to dentists.

The recession, the termination of Medicaid dental reimbursements and a large number of well-known dentists in the wealthy, populated areas are forcing new dentists to leave California. The information comes from a new policy brief from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.

California had more licensed dentists than any other state in 2012—more than 35,000. But the number of those licensed dentists who chose to live or work out of state increased by 6 percent from 2008 through 2012.

The numbers are particularly alarming when looking at new dentists. In 2012, only 86 percent of dentists licensed within the last five years practiced in California. This marked a 10-percent drop from 2008. Roughly 15 percent of dentists in the San Joaquin Valley would be considered new dentists, which is the highest of all regions in the state. The problem is that new dentists are increasingly comprising a smaller share of the overall state supply.

This issue will not get better over the next several years. About 25 percent of actively licensed dentists in California have practiced for 30 years or more and are nearing retirement. Approximately 40 percent of dentists in the Northern and Sierra Counties are close to retirement.

More dentists are also specializing in certain areas, meaning it will be more of a challenge to receive basic oral treatment compared to gum surgery. There are 13 percent of newly licensed dentists that could be considered specialists in 2012, representing a 6 percent increase since 2008.

Despite the influx of newly licensed dentists in the San Joaquin Valley, there are still only 2.4 dentists for every 5,000 people in the area—the lowest dentist-to-patient ratio in the state. The Greater Bay Area has about 5.1 dentists for every 5,000 people, the highest ratio in California. The issue, like in many states, is that the dentists flock to the highly populated areas—such as San Francisco or southern California—and leave the more rural areas with a void.

It’s important for the people in the San Joaquin Valley and the northern part of the state to have the same kind of dental treatment as people in the more populated areas, so it would be ideal for those people if the trend reverses course. There are several options to explore to aid in fixing that issue, such as assistance with dental school loan repayment, small business loans, and higher Medicaid reimbursement rates.