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Perfect Smile Not a Given in SD: Dentist Shortage a “Silent Epidemic”

October 10, 2007

Howard, SD – A report by the South Dakota Department of Labor calls the state's dentist shortage a "Silent Epidemic." The report says dental health has taken a backseat to other national health concerns in rural states like South Dakota, where dentists are rare and many are getting ready to retire. This year, the State Legislature approved a tuition reimbursement plan to attract soon-to-graduate dental students from surrounding states to gain work and life experience in South Dakota.

Dr. Robin Hattervig is dental director for Horizon Health Care in Howard and worked with some students this fall. He says dentists are stretched very thin in the state.

"It is sometimes kind-of difficult to get dentists in emergency cases, just because we're swamped. We really need more dentists out in our rural areas. A lot of the patients that we see are older, and don't want to travel to a big city to receive dental care; they'd rather do it in a small town. There really is a need -- I mean, a person can set up a practice in a small town and be busy right away."

Without a dental school, however, Dr. Hattervig says South Dakota must look to neighboring states for help in meeting the need.

"A better plan is to try and bring some of the dental students in from neighboring dental schools, and expose them to what South Dakota has to offer. Hopefully, they'll come back to rural areas once they see the need here. Also, in some cases, depending on how they qualify, they can have a lot of their loans paid for, especially if they come to small, rural areas."

Hattervig is excited about the payoff from the visiting dental student program.

"We'll have to make sure that we get up to the legislature this legislative session and make sure that they get the money appropriated for this again. We're hoping that we can look at it as an ongoing thing. So far it's going good. There's no guarantees, but I think there's probably a 90 percent chance that we're going to do this again."

The six students working with Dr. Hattervig in under-served areas this fall are seniors who will graduate next May. Three are from the University of Nebraska; there's one from Creighton University in Nebraska, and two are from the University of Minnesota.

David Law/Chris Thomas, Public News Service - SD