"Tooth decay is the most common chronic disease in children and adults in the United States," says the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention. While most dental diseases are preventable or treatable, even the most basic care is often not accessible for rural Americans. Reasons for care disparities range from the dental hygienist shortage to non-existent dental insurance and low Medicaid reimbursements to transportation limitations. Florida is an example of a state that has been unable to overcome these challenges,  reports Lauren Peace of the Tampa Bay Times.

"Every day, Adrienne Grimmett and her colleagues at Evara Health, a not-for-profit which serves Medicaid and uninsured patients in the Tampa Bay region, see stories of inequity in their patient's teeth, gums, and palates," Peace writes. "Marked in painful abscesses, dangerous infections, and missing molars are tales of unequal access to care. . . . All these ailments — which keep patients out of work. . . . and children out of school because they can't concentrate with rotting roots — are preventable. Annual dental checks are essential to overall health. But of the 67 counties in Florida, experts say, only one has enough dentists to treat all patients [and] Lafayette County, in north Florida, doesn't have a single one."

Grimmett, Evara's director of dental services, told Peace, "It's a social injustice. You will never be totally well if you don't have oral health." Peace reports, "About 6 million Floridians live in dental deserts, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services. That's the largest state population living without basic dental care in the U.S. . . . Vulnerable and marginalized communities — already prone to higher rates of chronic disease and limited access to health care — are left behind in these dental deserts."

The U.S. does not have a dentist shortage; however, "The majority of [dental] graduates aren't practicing in underserved communities. . . . The issue is uneven distribution, said Joe Anne Hart, who's worked for the Florida Dental Association for nearly two decades. . . . And often, she added, there's a financial reason why dentists choose to practice in more affluent regions: student loan debt. . . .With fewer patients in mostly poorer rural communities, graduates flock to private practices elsewhere, seeking financial stability. . . . . Because Medicaid reimbursements for dental care are paltry, even in urban areas, most dentists opt not to serve Medicaid patients."

Read the full article about dental deserts by Heather Close at The Rural Blog.