Oral Health in Rural Communities

Adequate access to oral healthcare is a persistent rural health issue. The National Advisory Committee on Rural Health and Human Services (2004) identified several factors that contribute to the problems of accessing dental care in rural America:

  • Geographic isolation – There are fewer dental health professionals in rural areas resulting in people having to travel farther to obtain oral healthcare
  • Lack of adequate transportation – Public transportation systems are often non-existent, causing rural residents, particularly low-income residents, difficulty in traveling to a dentist
  • Rate of poverty is higher in nonmetro areas – Rural populations living in poverty most often do not have the ability to afford dental healthcare or purchase dental health insurance
  • Large elderly population – Rural America has a higher percentage of elderly population, which is less likely to have dental coverage, as they generally are not employed and Medicare does not provide dental benefits
  • Acute provider shortages – A large majority of the nation’s Dental Health Professional Shortage Areas are in rural America
  • Difficulty finding providers willing to treat Medicaid patients – Low reimbursement rates cause many dentists to not accept Medicaid or Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) patients
  • Lack of fluoridated community water supply – Rural communities often find fluoridated water systems to be cost prohibitive

HRSA’s Oral Health Initiative 2010, identifies many of the same factors as significant barriers to accessing oral healthcare in rural America. In addition, a 2010 study published in the Journal of the American Dental Association found that employers in rural areas are less likely to offer dental insurance than those in more populated areas.

This guide highlights the resources that will support rural healthcare providers and others in promoting access of dental health services to rural adults and children.

Frequently Asked Questions

What oral health disparities are present in rural America?

According to NRHA’s 2013 policy paper, Rural America’s Oral Health Care Needs, WWAMI’s The Crisis in Rural Dentistry, and several other studies, rural residents have lower rates of dental care utilization and have higher rates of tooth decay and permanent tooth loss. For example:

  • Rural children are less likely than urban children to have received any dental care in the previous year (23.4% versus 22.3%) (SCRHRC, 2012)
  • Rural children were less likely to receive preventive dental care than urban children (29.3% versus 27.5%) (SCRHRC, 2012)
  • 16.3% of rural adults experience edentulism - twice the rate of urban adults (Vargas, et al.)
  • According to the Daily Yonder, “Rural adults are significantly more likely than non-rural adults to have untreated dental decay (32.6 percent compared to 25.7 percent).”
  • Smoking is more prevalent in rural areas than in urban areas (22.0% in urban and up to 24.9% in small rural nonadjacent areas) and can cause significant oral health problems (Doescher, et al.)
  • Access to dental care is frequently cited as a cause of the dental health disparities that exist in rural communities.  Contributing factors to the shortage include:
    • limited slots in dental schools
    • an unwillingness of providers to work in rural areas
    • a large number of dentists retiring
    • the growing trend of specialization in dental care

    In addition, there are a number of unique challenges that limit access to dental services for many rural residents including geographic and transportation barriers and a lower rate of dental insurance.

What barriers do rural communities and populations face regarding oral healthcare?

According to Pennsylvania Office of Rural Health Director Lisa Davis, as quoted in Dental Care in Rural Communities,

"People living in rural areas face a multitude of structural barriers when seeking dental care. These barriers, which include dentist availability, ability to pay, and transportation issues, contribute to minimal expectations for receiving dental care and cause people to undervalue dental care."

The most common barriers that discourage rural residents to obtain dental care including:

  • Provider availability
  • Cost of dental care
  • Lack of dental insurance
  • Fewer dentists accept Medicaid
  • Longer travel distances to dental care facilities
  • Lack of transportation to obtain dental care
  • Minimal awareness about the importance of oral health

This map shows the areas with limited dental availability.

HPSA Dental Health Score

Click on the map for the most recent version. Find other shortage designation maps at HRSA Data Warehouse.

How do I start a dental health service in my local community?

Several resources are available that provide information on how to develop a rural dental health service:

Also, see What other strategies have rural communities used to address lack of dental care access? for additional ideas to address dental care access.

How have mobile oral health programs been used to increase access to dental care in rural communities?

Many successful mobile oral health programs have been developed and widely used in rural America. Mobile dental vans and other portable dental clinics have traveled to various rural population centers including schools to provide preventive care, x-rays and other dental procedures. The Rural Health Information Hub Rural Oral Health Toolkit identifies the resources and best practices to help implement a rural Mobile Dental Services Model.

Across the nation there are examples of mobile oral health programs providing services to rural communities including:

  • California
    Tooth Mobile Dental Care Program provides affordable and accessible mobile dental care.
    Denti-Cal Outreach Program provides a mobile trailer that travels to a different rural northern California county each month to provide dental treatment to children.
  • Connecticut
    Generations Family Health Center, Inc sponsors Across the Smiles, a community mobile dental program that provides access to preventive and restorative dental care to many elementary and middle school children in the rural towns of Windham county in Northeast Connecticut.
  • Kentucky
    The University of Kentucky College of Dentistry sponsors Dental Outreach Programs that manage four mobile dental clinics and a dental outreach program that serves elementary school children and Head Start children in several Kentucky counties.
  • Maine
    Maine’s Oral Health Program includes several preventative services programs that provide mobile oral health services.
  • Michigan
    Smiles on Wheels provides access to dental hygiene and several other treatments for adults and children who do not have a regular dental office
  • Minnesota
    Apple Tree Dental Mobile Services provides on-site services in nursing homes, group homes, Head Start centers, schools, and assisted living facilities in Minnesota.
  • Missouri
    Dental Services Elks Mobile provides basic dental care for children with special healthcare needs and other special populations in Missouri.
    Miles of Smiles program travels to 12 counties in the Southwest Missouri area treating dental needs.
  • Nevada
    Nevada Health Centers operates the Ronald McDonald Care Mobile unit that provides treatment, education, prevention, and advocacy to Northern Rural Nevada to address the oral health epidemic.
  • New Jersey
    Southern Jersey Family Medical Centers, Inc. sponsors The Mobile Medic providing mobile medicine, including dental screens and emergency dental care, to residents of Burlington, Atlantic, and Salem counties.
  • New York
    Eastman Institute for Oral Health sponsors the Community Dentistry & Oral Disease Prevention program providing mobile dental services to people who do not have access to dental care.
    University at Buffalo School of Dental Medicine sponsors the S-Miles To Go Mobile Dental Program providing dental care to rural Chautauqua County children.
  • North Carolina
    Access Dental Care provides dental care for older adults in long-term care settings and those with developmental disabilities in North Carolina.
  • South Dakota
    Ronald McDonald House of Charities sponsors the Dakota Smiles Mobile Dental Program, a dental mobile unit that travels around the state, bringing dental care to South Dakota children.
  • Washington
    Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic sponsors a Mobile Medical and Dental Services providing both healthcare and urgent dental care services for remote populations with a focus on migrant children.

What other strategies have rural communities used to address lack of dental care access?

The Rural Health Information Hub provides two useful tools that may be useful when looking for additional strategies to address dental care access.

What emerging and alternative dental provider types have been used to provide dental care to rural populations?

Alaska has been a leader in using alternative provider types to meet the needs of Alaska Natives in very remote villages. One alternative provider type is the Dental Health Aide Therapist (DHATs) who are trained in Alaska in a two-year, post-high school competency-based primary care curriculum that incorporates preventive and clinical strategies. DHATs have been providing preventive and basic dental care to Alaska Natives since 2005. Program evaluations have shown that DHATs are technically competent and successfully treating patients under the general supervision of dentists. Additional information about Alaska’s program is available from the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

In 2009, Minnesota authorized dental therapists to practice in all of the states’ underserved areas. Minnesota has three types of dental therapist programs: Oral Health Care Practitioner (OHCP) Master’s degree program; Bachelor’s and Master’s level Dental Therapy degree; and Master’s degree in Advanced Dental Therapy (currently under development.)

Maine, beginning with the 2008-2009 school year, utilized dental hygienists to offer dental sealants to students in rural areas. During the summer, they provide oral health services to migrant workers and their families.

For further information on the above programs see

Are there any loan repayment programs for dental clinicians?

General practice dentists and registered clinical dental hygienists may qualify for the National Health Service Corps Loan Repayment Program. This is a federal program that is open to licensed dental health providers who are employed or have accepted employment at a National Health Service Corps approved site.

The Indian Health Service also has a loan repayment program for those who qualify.

For more information about loan repayment programs, see RHIhub’s topic guide on Scholarships, Loans, and Loan Repayment for Rural Health Professions.

Where can I find information about fluoridation in rural community water supplies?

Community water fluoridation is consistently found to be one of the most effective means of preventing tooth decay. According to the Journal of Public Health Dentistry, every $1 spent on fluoridation saves $38 in treatment costs. However, it is proportionally much more expensive to fluoridate small community water supplies than large ones. The CDC reports that it is six times more costly per person to fluoridate water supplies with less than 5,000 people than those with greater than 20,000. In addition, most of the 12.6 percent of U.S. residents using private wells are located in rural areas. These wells are typically unfluoridated.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Community Water Fluoridation website has information about water fluoridation, including maps, safety guidelines, and state statistics. The CDC’s  My Water's Fluoride website provides information on the fluoridation status of your community water supply. Also, Water Fluoridation and Dental Health Indicators in Rural and Urban Areas of the United States (Policy Brief) reports on the availability of fluoridated water in both rural and urban settings and compares fluoride availability to the dental health of adults and children.

Who can I contact for information about oral health programs in my area?

The Association of State and Territorial Dental Directors (ASTDD) maintains a directory of state oral health programs with contact information and a description of their programs.