Lynnel Beauchesne’s dental office hugs a rural crossroads near Tunnelton, W.Va., population 336. Acres of empty farmland surround the weathered one-story white building; a couple of houses and a few barns are the only neighbors. But the parking lot is full. Some people have driven hours to see Beauchesne, the sole dentist within 30 miles. She estimates that she has as many as 8,000 patients. Before the office closes at 7 p.m., she and her two hygienists will see up to 50 of them, not counting emergencies.
About 43 percent of rural Americans lack access to dental care, according to the National Rural Health Association, and West Virginia, among the poorest and most rural states, is at the center of the crisis. All but six of the state’s 55 counties include federally designated “Health Professional Shortage Areas,” “Medically Underserved Areas” or both. The state’s Oral Health Program found in 2014 and 2015 that nearly half of counties had fewer than six practicing dentists, just half of adult West Virginians had visited a dentist in the previous year, and more than one-fifth hadn’t seen a dentist in five years. By comparison, a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study in 2015 found that 64 percent of all American adults ages 18 to 64 reported seeing a dentist in the previous year. The rate of total tooth loss is 33.8 percent among West Virginians over 65, compared with roughly 19 percent for all seniors nationally.
One seemingly obvious solution is to persuade more dentists and other oral-health providers to come to places like West Virginia, a goal of various public efforts. The federal National Health Service Corps program, for example, offers up to $50,000 in loan assistance to doctors and dentists willing to work two years in a designated shortage area. And several states have passed or considered legislation authorizing “dental therapists” — midlevel providers akin to nurse practitioners — to provide certain kinds of primary dental care in areas where dentists are scarce.