A UCLA Center for Health Policy Research brief shows that despite a high number of licensed dentists in the state, more are choosing to leave and practice elsewhere.
Over 35,000 dentists were licensed in California in 2012 – more than any other state. However, between 2008 and 2012, the number of dentists who worked or lived out of state grew 6 percent.
Among new dentists, there's an even greater recession. In 2012, 86 percent of those licensed in the last five years chose to stay in California to practice. That’s compared to 96 percent in 2008.
Age may also play a role in the looming shortage. The report found that nearly one-quarter of active, licensed dentists have been practicing for 30 years or more and are drilling down to retirement age.
More and more new dentists are specializing, which means it may become harder for people to get basic oral care than gum surgery. Thirteen percent of newly licensed and active dentists said they were specialists in 2012 – up 6 percent from 2008.
Finally, an uneven supply of licensed dentists is affecting the rural parts of the state.
For example, there are 5.1 dentists for every 5,000 people in the greater Bay Area, but there are only 2.4 for every 5,000 in the San Joaquin Valley.
"There is a lopsided distribution of dentists," said Nadereh Pourat, the lead author of the study. "They cluster in areas like San Francisco and Southern California, but don't settle in rural and underserved areas. Many areas of the state don't have enough dentists."
The most underserved areas were the San Joaquin Valley, Northern and Sierra counties.
In San Diego and other Southern California counties, the study said there are roughly 3.8 active dentists per 5,000 people. About 29 percent are women, 14 percent have been licensed in the last five years, and 20 percent are nearing retirement.
As for the reasons behind these trends, Pourat suggests that a lingering recession and the elimination of Medicaid dental reimbursements may come into play.
The study’s authors suggest options such as assistance with dental school loan repayment, small business loans and higher Medicaid reimbursements to provide incentives for dentists to stay in state.