People are pulling their own teeth, not in some distant Third World country but right here in Maine. The top reason young adults go to the emergency room is dental problems, a waste of limited medical resources and money.
To begin to solve these problems — which have received little public attention — Maine needs more dental providers. A dental school, for which voters approved a $5 million bond last fall, will help. The Penobscot Community Health Center is doing amazing work at its growing dental clinic in Bangor. But these efforts are not nearly enough to address the pressing problem of foregone dental care.
LD 1105 is a tiny step in the right direction. The resolve, sponsored by Sen. Chris Rector of Thomaston, would set up a group to study oral health care in Maine. The group would look at funding for oral health care and barriers that keep people from seeing a dentist. They are likely to find that money is part of the problem, but that a lack of dental providers is a bigger hurdle.
According to the Maine Office of Rural Health and Primary Care, there is a shortage of dentists in every Maine county. Maine has one dentist for 2,300 residents; the national average is one per 1,600.
A study done last year by the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine found that Mainers are using emergency rooms, rather than dentists, to treat problems with their teeth.
“The top diagnostic reason for an emergency department visit among both MaineCare and
uninsured young adults aged 15 through 24 and adults aged 25 through 44 was dental disease,” the report said.
Emergency rooms can prescribe medication for pain, but not much else to treat underlying dental problems. In addition, emergency room care is often the most expensive way to treat any ailment.
To begin to resolve this, LD 1105 focuses on the dental work force. One possible solution the study group will look at is whether Maine should allow a new type of provider to do more than a hygienist but not be as schooled as a dentist.
Minnesota, Alaska and 50 countries have dental therapists, which are akin to physician assistants. They would be allowed to drill and fill teeth and extract them.
Creating such a position in Maine would take the pressure off dentists while helping more Mainers get access to the dental care they need.
This is not a panacea, but Maine must look at all the possible solutions — and it will take a combination of many — to ensure the state’s residents can go to a dental office rather than pulling their own teeth.