A report on the dental workforce in Pennsylvania has found that participation in the field is on the decline.

The report, released by the Pennsylvania Coalition for Oral Health (PCOH), found that the Pennsylvania dental workforce has decreased by 10% since 2015.

The Access to OralHealth Workforce Report also found that many counties are struggling to maintain recommended worker levels since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Northcentral Pa., the decreases in dental care workers compared to pre-pandemic levels are significant, affecting access to care for 21% of the population living here. 

The region’s Medicaid and Medicare provider networks have seen the sharpest reductions in participation. Since 2019, Medicaid participation by dentists in Northcentral Pa. has decreased 27%. This is the worst loss of providers within Pennsylvania’s six health regions. 

According to Helen Hawkey, the executive director at PCOH and an author of the report, “Pennsylvania’s current rate of dental workforce attrition is not providing opportunities to resupply at the level necessary to meet the need. We found that the state was experiencing a year-over-year workforce reduction exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The most alarming finding for dental care access is steep reductions in dental assistants.” 

Pennsylvania lost over 16% of the dental assistant workforce from 11,640 to 9,720 between 2015 and 2021. The commonwealth now ranks in the bottom three nationally with the number of dental assistants by location.

To add more pressure, the number of applications for training programs across the state is lower than in the past and Northcentral Pa. has the smallest number of training programs compared to PA’s other six regions. 

“Dental assistants are vital to keep dental offices flowing and make it possible for dentists and dental hygienists to see the needed number of patients,” stated Hawkey. “We hope that the State Board of Dentistry will move more quickly to evaluate and approve new training programs to enhance the dental assistant workforce.” 

Communities will feel the pain beyond the toothaches that come with limited access and delayed care. Dental offices produce economic development that creates jobs and produces income that is spent in local communities. 

“Dentistry is a significant contributor to the economy of Pennsylvania,” according to Dr. Sean Boynes, president of dental medicine consulting and the report’s senior investigator, “With the decreased workforce, the state has lost millions in yearly tax revenue as well as the $1M+ in economic activity that each dentist can bring. Unfortunately, the northcentral rural counties will lose about $12.2M in annual labor income with these shortages. This will decrease the amount of money available for spending in those communities.”

“Pennsylvania’s rural communities were hit the hardest, losing close to 15% of rural dentists and $73M in annual labor income,” stated Kelly Braun, a report author and the rural primary care and integration coordinator at the Pennsylvania Office of Rural Health. “From 2019 to 2021, we lost over 12% of our clinical workforce in the northcentral counties, impacting access to care for 21% of the northcentral population.” 

The report also exposes the lower pay that Pennsylvania dental care workers receive compared to national and regional numbers. The state ranks 44 out of 53 for dental hygienist wages and 41 out of 50 for dentist salaries. Compared to its six bordering states, Pennsylvania is often ranked within the bottom for wages and salaries. 

According to Braun, “The loss of dental providers is detrimental, particularly in rural northcentral Pennsylvania. In our analysis, we discovered that this region has the greatest number of older individuals who had all of their teeth removed by a dentist [27%].” 

The Access to Oral Health Workforce Report is part of ongoing initiatives at the Pennsylvania Coalition for Oral Health aimed to improve the oral health of Pennsylvanians. 

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