Why it might be difficult to schedule a dentist appointment in Virginia right now

Dental Hygienists Shortage Virginia 2024
Posted at 7:21 PM, May 02, 2024
and last updated 2024-05-02 20:22:44-04

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. -- The big reason Dr. Pete Appleby decided to become a dentist is people: he loves meeting new people and the opportunity to get to know patients over decades is exciting to him. In recent years though, the number of people his branch of Virginia Family Dentistry can see has shrunk considerably.

If you have had trouble booking a dentist appointment that's sooner than a six months or possibly longer, it could be related to the ongoing dental hygienist shortage in Virginia.

“This our hygiene hall that used to be bustling," Dr. Appleby said, pointing out two empty cleaning stations they cannot staff currently. "The hygienists here are working harder than they’ve ever worked, but unfortunately we just don’t have the staff to fill the operatories we have.”

Dental Hygienists Shortage Virginia 2024
Dr. Pete Appleby

One dentist can supervise up to four dental hygienists in Virginia, and hygienists must be licensed by the state to practice. An analysis by the Virginia Dental Association (VDA) released last month found there are more dentists in Virginia than hygienists, and the number imbalance impacts patient care and wait-list times, experts said.

More than half of dentists have reported taking on tasks traditionally completed by hygienists since the pandemic, according to national surveys. This directly impacts the number of appointments dentist offices of all sizes can take on.

“We really practice a preventative model, so we want to see our patients regularly, and dental hygienists enable us to do so. Having a shortage of dental hygienists means we have a shortage of appointments to see those patients and that has some serious effects," Dr. Appleby said. “I think I laugh with a lot of my dentist friends, we’re doing more cleanings now than we’ve done in our whole career.”

At his specific branch of Virginia Family Dentistry, which has 16 locations across Central Virginia, Dr. Appleby said they are seeing 1,500 fewer cleaning appointments per year, while demand for those types of appointments is on the way up.

The dentists-hygienist ratio imbalance is particularly pronounced in Richmond and Henrico, which trail only Fairfax County for the largest gap between the number of full-time dentists to full-time hygienists, according to the VDA's survey of state data.

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Virginia Dental Association survey of dentist to hygienist ratio in Virginia localities

The VDA said there is a need to expand the number of dental hygienist programs in Virginia and recruit more people to the ones already in place.

In Central Virginia, the VCU School of Dentistry is one of two dental hygiene programs in the state, but program leadership said they can only expand the program if they can build a new facility. Although it is not yet complete, the latest version of the state budget did include $5 million in funding to start the project.

Dental Hygienists Shortage Virginia 2024
CBS 6 Reporter Jake Burns

VDA said Virginia's G3 program helps cover the tuition of select in-demand fields like dental assisting and dental hygiene for individuals with a household income of less than $100,000.  

Virginia and six other states have joined a newly-formed compact so that hygienist licenses could more easily transfer from state to state.

Dr. Appleby said despite the demand they're facing currently, the dental hygienists he works with enjoy their work. According to data from the job search website Indeed, the average pay for a full-time dental hygienist in Virginia is approximately $55 per hour.

Dental Hygienists Shortage Virginia 2024
Dr. Pete Appleby

"It’s great hours, fantastic pay, weekends off, your home at night," Dr. Appleby said, adding he feels program expansion and recruiting efforts will eventually pay off — eventually.

"As a patient myself, we all have to understand that’s going to take some time, so in the meantime, I think it’s important for patients to also be an advocate for themselves in getting those appointments and seeing their dentist. Not just accepting maybe I’m not going to be seen for 12 months.”

Dr. Appleby said he encourages healthy patients to check in with their dentist about same-day appointments and not neglect their oral health care. For those with more serious problems, he said the silver lining is there are plenty of dentists out there.

“If you have a problem with your teeth or gums, something’s concerning you, don’t wait if your dentist is telling you they can’t see you for a year, 18-months," Dr. Appleby said. “Be proactive, contact us, and most dentists are going to make a way to see you.”

You can read more about the industry via the Virginia Dental Association's website.



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