Tennessee’s teeth are in danger.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a third of the residents of the Volunteer State didn’t visit a dentist at all in 2013. Of the elderly population (65 and older), 53% have lost at least six teeth, and 31.5% have lost every single one of their teeth.
And it’s not just a question of age.Dr. Michele Blackledge, a dentist with the Aspen Dental Office in Gallatin, claims the dental crisis is seeping into more and more demographics.
“Every week,” she writes in a recent article on Tennesseean.com, “I treat patients in their 20s whose mouths are filled with decay, after years of ignoring their oral health.”
The problem may be twofold. Dr. Blackledge cites “dental phobia” as one of the likely culprits behind the crisis. Many patients grew up without ever seeing a dentist, so they had no opportunity to become comfortable with the experience, relying instead on a sensationalized and stereotyped public image of dentistry as painful and scary.
In fact, many people are surprised to learn that a modern root canal procedure is no more painful than having a cavity filled — i.e. not painful at all.
Many procedures can be done with the benefit of sedation. This not only makes the procedure more comfortable, but can also reduce the number of visits required, even for complicated surgeries such as extractions and restorations.
The second factor, however, might render the phobia question moot: Tennessee is experiencing a shortage of dentists.
Research from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shows a shortage of dental health professionals in 89 of 95 Tennessee counties — that’s 94% of the state.
“Many graduating dentists are attracted to the wealthy major metropolitan centers on the coasts,” states Dr. Blackledge. “Even with a fine dental school in Nashville at Meharry Medical College, where I received my degree, we have not been able to fill the gap.”
Recent evidence shows that many Tennessee residents are, in fact, eager to maintain good dental health. Eleven Aspen Dental offices across the state participated in the “Healthy Mouth Movement,” offering free dental appointments for anyone who signed up. At every office, the schedule was completely filled within minutes.
Dr. Blackledge and similarly-minded dentists hope to change the perception of dentistry within their state, both for apprehensive patients and for recently-graduated dental professionals. Too many patients, she laments, are waiting until their dental problems become full-blown emergencies, then seeking treatment at hospital emergency departments.
“The situation must change,” says Dr. Blackledge.