Assessing the contribution of the dental care delivery system to oral health care disparities

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Abstract

Objectives:

Existing studies of disparities in access to oral health care for underserved populations often focus on supply measures such as number of dentists. This approach overlooks the importance of other aspects of the dental care delivery system, such as personal and practice characteristics of dentists, that determine the capacity to provide care. This study aims to assess the role of such characteristics in access to care of underserved populations.

Methods:

We merged data from the 2003 California Health Interview Survey and a 2003 survey of California dentists in their Medical Study Service Areas (MSSAs). We examined the role of overall supply and other characteristics of dentists in income and racial/ethnic disparities in access, which was measured by annual dental visits and unmet need for dental care due to costs.

Results:

We found that some characteristics of MSSAs, including higher proportions of dentists who were older, white, busy or overworked, and did not accept public insurance or discounted fees, inhibited access for low-income and minority populations.

Conclusions:

These findings highlight the importance of monitoring characteristics of dentists in addition to traditional measures of supply such as licensed-dentist-to-population ratios. The findings identify specific aspects of the delivery system such as dentists' participation in Medicaid, provision of discounted care, busyness, age, race/ethnicity, and gender that should be regularly monitored. These data will provide a better understanding of how the dental care delivery system is organized and how this knowledge can be used to develop more narrowly targeted policies to alleviate disparities.

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