June 22, 2018
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Maine must consider dental school to fight crisis

By Philip W. Higgins, Special to the BDN

Maine has a looming dental health care crisis. If that comes as a surprise to you, it does not to thousands of Maine residents that suffer from one dental emergency to another.

Maine has been on the leading edge of prevention issues with the establishment of public health supervision hygienists and most recently the creation of an independent practicing dental hygienist. We are one of the few states in the country that allows the practice of denturism, making it easier for residents without teeth to receive dentures.

But we have done relatively little in addressing the most pressing need in oral health facing our residents. Restorative dental care — fillings, extractions, emergency pain relief — has not received the attention it needs. We have a gaping hole in the continuum of dental care.

The costs of restorative care, the level of training required to deliver that care and the geography of a largely rural state are chief among the reasons for not developing a solution to the problem.

Here is where a serious problem becomes a crisis: We have an aging population of dentists in the state. More than 40 percent of our practicing dentists are approaching retirement. There are fewer young dentists being attracted to our state. Maine needs something on the order of 200 new dentists in the next decade just to keep pace with services being provided today.

It is time for more definitive action to be taken. A dental school in Maine is the most exciting and significant possibility of meeting this need that I’ve seen in the last 30 years. The proposed education model for the profession of dentistry is unique in that 40 fourth-year dental students will be placed each year in rural clinics under the direction of trained faculty to deliver the services so much in need for residents. Upward of 60,000 patient services a year statewide could be realized by this innovative approach.

There is a piece of proposed legislation that would help to make this possible for Maine residents. LD 1798 is a bill to place a $7 million bond on the ballot this November. Five million dollars would establish a dental school clinic for dental students to fill this treatment void and the remaining $2 million would be used to expand community-based nonprofit dental clinics to serve as teaching sites throughout Maine.

Is this a good deal for the state of Maine? You bet it is! Upward of $5 million a year is spent in Maine’s emergency rooms treating dental pain with prescriptions for antibiotics and pain medications. No definitive care is delivered, but millions of dollars are spent. Repeat visits for the same problem are common.

With properly equipped dental school clinics located in different areas of Maine, definitive care can be delivered. Emergency room visits and charges for dental care would plummet. There is real potential to save money, relieve pain and meet critical dental health care needs.

An added bonus will be that a number of those dentists in training will be from Maine and even more will opt to stay in Maine to begin their careers after their dental education.

In a time when all taxpayers are looking for relief, please rest assured LD 1798 and the passage of the subsequent bond are necessary steps for the creation of a dental school in Maine that will save money, prevent pain and suffering and provide dentists to treat your grandchildren and mine.

Philip W. Higgins is a dentist in Rockport.

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