Close this search box.

Diversifying tomorrow’s dental workforce to stop the widening gap in health care access

By: Jandra Korb, DDS- Dental Director, DentaQuest 

“Dental care is in crisis. But it’s also a moment of opportunity.” This is the headline from a recent op-ed in STAT news by Steve Pollock, president of dental for Sun Life U.S., which includes DentaQuest. The article highlights the national health care workforce shortage and, most importantly, what industry leaders can do about it. As the country’s largest Medicaid and CHIP dental benefits provider, each of us at DentaQuest is all too familiar with the issue of inadequate access for underserved populations. So, it’s no surprise that the growing shortage of dentists and resulting lack of access to care, is felt greatest by those in rural and lower-income communities.

Right here in Oklahoma, we feel it. More than 80% of our counties are designated Dental Health Provider Shortage Areas (DHPSAs) – or dental deserts – for low-income patients. That also means that 1 in 4 Oklahomans live in these shortage areas and may have trouble getting access to care locally. If you don’t have a car or there is no public transit, and you work full time and/or raise a family, it can be really tough to get to the appointment, if you can find a provider willing to give you one.

You see, there has been a 4.2% decrease in the number of practicing dentists in Oklahoma from 2010-2020. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, the projected workforce growth for dentists will not meet the projected demand for dentists in Oklahoma by 2025. There is a projected deficit of 118 dentists for Oklahomans. 

During National Children’s Dental Health month, we focus on oral health education, prevention best practices and teaching our kids about the importance of good dental health for overall health. This month is also an opportunity to inspire children to become the dentists and hygienists of tomorrow, especially children from minority and underserved communities. By creating career pathways, we can close the access gap as well as expand representation.

The current racial mix of the dental workforce does not reflect that of the U.S. population. In a 2019 study by George Washington University, Black dentists made up 4.4% of the dental workforce, Hispanic dentists 5.7% and Native American dentists 0.3%. When the dentist or his team share a similar background with their patients, it creates trust and promotes the likelihood of a repeat visit.

Right now, DentaQuest is working hard to expand representation in the workforce with scholarships and opportunities for students training in dental care. A recent $25,000 contribution to the University of Oklahoma College of Dentistry will support the Community-Based Dental Education Fund, which offers financial support to dental students during their required externship rotations in underserved communities. Another program directly supports Native American and Alaska Native aspiring dental professionals with test preparation and fees for the Dental Admissions Test.

We are doing this so that there will be more dentists like Darlene Sorrell, the first Navajo dentist, founding member of the Society for American Indian Dentists (SAID) and a 2023 DentaQuest Health Access Hero, who are seeing the positive impacts of care delivery by Native dentists and mentorship programs for young adults looking to join the dental workforce.

Dr. Sorrell was recognized with a Health Access Hero award last year for her work with the Navajo Nation’s only nonprofit dental clinic, Nizhóní (Beautiful) Smiles and her commitment to provide care despite pandemics, lack of funding and other challenges she faced during her 38 years as a dentist with The Indian Health Service.

The awards celebrate individuals and organizations improving health care access for high-need communities and include a $5,000 donation to a qualified nonprofit. It’s important to stay focused, but it’s also important to take a moment and celebrate our successes along the way – which is why we started the awards 10 years ago.

Health access is a critical issue. Just having enough dentists is not enough. We need to ensure any child, regardless of race or gender can aspire to and achieve a career in dentistry, this month and every month.

P.S. Nominate a Hero Today!

Anyone can nominate a Health Access Hero and heroes can come from any sector. The Health Access Hero awards are complemented by Sun Life’s Health Access grant program that offers up to $100,000 to selected charitable organizations. Both award nominations and grant applications are open through April 19.

About the author

Jandra Korb, DDS, joined DentaQuest as dental director after spending more than two decades practicing general dentistry in Vinita, Okla. She spends significant time volunteering within educational and dental realms and has served as a member of the Board of Health for Craig County, Okla. Dr. Korb is a member of the SAID Policy and Legislative Committee as well as a Core Team member for the Native Oral Health Network. Dr. Korb earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing and a doctorate of dental surgery (DDS) at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

© 2024 Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada, Wellesley Hills, MA 02481. All rights reserved. The Sun Life name and logo are registered trademarks of Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada. Visit us at