Maine suffers from a shortage of dentists that affects far more than our smiles. Not having enough dental professionals to provide care for our entire population also undermines our state’s economy.

The growing need to manage health costs requires a look at possible new policies to expand access to dental services for both adults and children. Mainers should not have to suffer because of a lack of dental care providers in their communities.

In 15 of the state’s 16 counties, Maine averages only one dentist for every 2,300 residents, far below the national average of one dentist for every 1,600 residents. Only Cumberland County has a ratio of dentists to patients that is better than the national figure.

Unfortunately, this problem is not likely to improve significantly in the next several years. Helpful developments such as the opening of the University of New England’s new dental school next year, or the movement of dentists trained elsewhere to Maine, will be offset by the retirement of many of the dentists who currently practice.

The lack of dental care hits Maine’s children, citizens in rural areas and seniors the hardest. Dental problems start with poor or unaddressed dental care in childhood and escalate into expensive problems such as root canals and extractions.

Dental disease is the most common disease among children in the United States, according to a Michigan study on oral health care. It is five times more prevalent than asthma. Furthermore, many studies have shown that dental disease can contribute to other serious health problems such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, chronic stress and depression. Some studies indicate that it may impair cognitive development.

Dental care may be the single greatest unmet need for health services among children. Nearly 60 percent of our children currently have untreated cavities, problems that will only worsen with age.

Eighty percent of dental disease in children is concentrated in 25 percent of children, and children from poor families face disproportionately high barriers to getting care. Adults, Maine businesses and Maine’s economy also suffer.

Across the country, an estimated 164 million hours of work are missed each year because of dental issues, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Productivity goes down when parents have to miss work for their own or their children’s dental problems. Health care costs go up when patients without access to a dentist seek urgent care in hospital emergency rooms, burdening an already strained system. Patients are often treated in emergency rooms with painkillers and antibiotics, but the underlying root of the problem, sometimes serious dental disease, may not be treated.

When you combine the business and social costs, looking into new ideas to increase access to affordable dental care becomes a no-brainer. That’s why Maine’s business community recently supported a study of the state’s dental work force shortage. The study examines public and private financing for oral health, the role of a new dental school at the University of New England, and the prospect of expanded roles for dental assistants and dental hygienists.

The study also examines an approach used in other states and countries through which mid-level dental care professionals provide a limited scope of routine dental services. This increases the number of providers available to serve the public and should decrease the cost of care. And to ensure quality and safety for patients, these providers are required to practice under the supervision of a dentist. The available evidence strongly suggests that this approach might help us address our unmet needs.

Health care costs and the health of Mainers have a direct impact on the strength of our economy. Dental health is a both a medical issue and an economic one. The business community looks forward to working with the Legislature to ensure the removal of barriers that prevent any Mainers from having access to the dental care they need.


Frank McGinty is executive vice president and treasurer of MaineHealth, a not-for-profit group of health care providers and other healthcare organizations.