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Pierce County doesn’t have enough dentists. Lawmakers must expand access to oral health

·3 min read

There are over 2 million people in Washington state currently experiencing a shortage of dental providers in their area. In Pierce County, University of Washington researchers found there were only 60 practicing dentists per every 100,000 residents. That’s only one dentist for nearly 1,700 people, and that ratio is even worse for families with low incomes and people of color.

In my longtime role as director of Sea Mar’s dental services, meeting the demand for oral health care has remained a challenge. It has been especially difficult for us to recruit dentists to work in remote, rural areas such as Port Angeles, Aberdeen and Oak Harbor, where it takes months, and sometimes more than a year, to hire a dentist.

In my work, I strive for everyone to get the highest quality care needed to enjoy a healthy life, regardless of race, income or insurance coverage. Dental care is essential — without it you can lose your smile, your health, and even your life. But right now, too many people in Washington are not able to find a dentist who accepts their insurance or get an appointment when they need one.

Fortunately, there is a proven solution to address this problem, and the state legislature has the opportunity to move it forward during its upcoming legislative session. That solution is dental therapy, which is a model that adds a provider to the dental care team to offer commonly needed routine services, getting patients timely preventive care and freeing up dentists to attend to more complex procedures.

Dental therapy also creates a career opportunity in health care for underserved communities. Our patients feel more comfortable when their dental providers understand their culture and speak their language. When dental clinicians serve the community they grew up in, they are viewed as role models. I share with patients that I come from a low-income family and I have been told by multiple parents over the years that because their children “saw me as one of them,” they were instilled with the confidence to attend college and pursue a career.

In 2017, dental therapists were authorized by the state legislature to provide dental care only on Tribal lands in Washington. Currently, dental therapists are practicing in 12 states. But non-tribal communities across Washington are being left behind, as our state lawmakers have not yet authorized dental therapy statewide. The Washington State Dental Association has been the roadblock, using its influence to spread fear and misinformation to distract from the issue at hand — people are in pain and debt, and are losing their teeth because they cannot get access to dental care.

Washington cannot afford to delay this proven solution any longer. Dental therapy is one policy solution to increasing access to quality care in underserved communities. And it’s the only one that also creates quality, living wage jobs for Washingtonians who want to serve the community they grew up in. We have seen positive outcomes in Tribal communities as they have trained and employed dental therapists; children are happy to jump into dentists’ chairs, elders are needing fewer tooth extractions, and dental therapists are role models for others who want to become health care providers.

During the 2021 legislative session, the legislature voted to create a task force consisting of a range of experts and stakeholders to make recommendations for Washington to bring dental therapy statewide. With the task force report released in December, providing clear evidence of the value of dental therapists, we can delay no more. Now is the time to allow dental therapists to provide care statewide.

In my almost 40 years directing Sea Mar’s dental services, I’ve had the pleasure of supervising dental students. I hope state lawmakers give me the opportunity to supervise dental therapists in the very near future, bringing more diversity and access to oral health.

Dr. Alejandro Narváez, DDS joined Sea Mar Community Health Centers in 1982 and has served as Director of Dental Services since 1983. He has dedicated his entire career in dentistry to providing care to underserved communities in Western Washington.