If you live in Union County, New Mexico, and have a toothache, your closest viable option for dental care is a two-hour drive away, in Amarillo, Texas. Chances are you’ll have to wait months for an appointment.
Why is it so hard to see a dentist? Because there isn’t one in Union County. Getting routine dental care is a major challenge. And that’s the reality for thousands of New Mexicans who live in rural, tribal and underserved communities where there aren’t enough dentists.
New Mexico faces devastating dental access problems. With this blog, I want to show the depth of the problem and highlight efforts in our state to solve it. I’ve been exposed to these issues through my work at Health Action New Mexico, where I work with the government, the nonprofit community and the public to raise awareness of dental access issues and shape programs and policies that expand access to dental services.
So many of us have seen firsthand how the state’s dental access problems affect everyone, but especially children and families in rural areas, where dental care is hardest to get. According to federal estimates, 29 of our 33 counties don’t have enough dentists – including six that don’t have any. As a result, more than 780,000 New Mexicans live in areas without enough dentists.
Behind those numbers are real people — children and adults — who suffer unnecessarily and miss school and work because they can’t get dental care when they need it. Sometimes their dental problems turn into dental emergencies, and they have no recourse but the hospital emergency room, where care is exorbitantly expensive. (For more on this issue, check out the KRQE segment below.)
New Mexico is not the only state struggling to address dental care shortages; this is a nationwide problem. Fortunately, awareness of this issue is growing and efforts are underway across the country and in New Mexico to expand access to dental care.
Health Action New Mexico and our partners are particularly encouraged by a model that would create a new kind of practitioner: a dental therapist, who would be trained and certified to provide a narrow scope of commonly needed dental care services such as cleanings, fillings and simple extractions under the supervision of an off-site dentist. For the first time, a bill to bring dental therapists to New Mexico was introduced to the state legislature this year. Although the bill didn’t pass, legislators now have a better understanding of our state’s dental care crisis and this possible solution.
Dental therapists are just one proposal on the table to help expand access to care. Despite the seriousness of the problem, it’s exciting to see momentum building in New Mexico and across the country for greater dental care access.
That’s why I started Word of Mouth NM. This blog will serve as a forum for exploring efforts in New Mexico and other states to expand access to dental care and for driving discussion on dental access issues. I’m looking forward to a hearty conversation. Although I will be the primary blogger for the site, we will also have guest posts from other oral health advocates and experts. Please send your comments, suggestions and questions. I’d love your feedback and participation.
With that, welcome, and let’s get started!