Montana dentists are concentrated in urban areas

More than 20 Montana counties shown in light yellow have either one or zero dentists for the entire county.

People living in many of Montana’s rural communities and on Native American reservations have no dentists, a problem Montana State University is working to solve.

MSU is working with the University of Washington’s Regional Initiatives in Dental Education (RIDE) program to bring dental students from the Spokane-based program to train in Montana’s rural and Native American communities.

MSU Provost Bob Mokwa gave the Board of Regents a progress report on the RIDE program at their recent meeting in Bozeman. The regents approved the RIDE curriculum in January 2018.

In the last year, new training partnerships have been established across Montana — on the Blackfeet and Northern Cheyenne reservations, in Libby and at Urban Indian Health Centers in Missoula, Helena and Billings. That’s in addition to 18 existing sites where RIDE dental students can train in Montana, from Dillon to Scobey.

MSU officials hope eventually to persuade state lawmakers to create a dental program for Montana students in cooperation with the University of Washington.

It would be patterned after the successful WWAMI program that trains medical doctors from Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho and after a similar cooperative program that trains Montana veterinarians.

But educating dentists is expensive – more expensive than training doctors, Mokwa said.

So for now, the RIDE team in Montana has been working to get grant money to expand the number of dentist training sites in rural Montana.

“I’m very encouraged,” said Kathy Jutila, head of the Division of Health Sciences at MSU. “There’s so much interest. It’s so needed.”

Rural dentists have to be “super generalists,” Mokwa said, who can handle everyday dental care as well as have the advanced skills to handle more complicated emergencies in rural communities, where they don’t have the same kind of backup that city dentists have.

Dental students also have to be ready to practice on their own by the time they finish their four years of dental school because unlike medical doctors, they usually don’t go on to get additional training through residencies.

Today, 80% of Montana dentists practice in just nine communities, all urban. A dozen Montana counties have zero dentists. Another nine have just one.

The RIDE team has succeeded in winning grants, but, Mokwa said, future funding from the state will be necessary for long-term sustainability.

In the past year, the RIDE team has landed a four-year $389,000 federal health grant through the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services and a $46,600 grant from the Montana Healthcare Foundation. New grant applications are going out in the next few months.

Montana students can compete to get into the Washington RIDE program now, but if Montana established a cooperative dental training program, Montana students could get their first-year of training in Bozeman alongside the WWAMI students.

“We’re really optimistic,” Jutila said. “It’s so needed in Montana.”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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