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Dentists stay busy in rural areas

Press Photo by Beth Wischmeyer Dickinson dentist Lonnie Neuberger examines some teeth X-rays Friday at the Neuberger Dental Clinic.

Some dentists in rural areas are being overwhelmed with patients and a state official said there is a need for more dentists in small communities.

Jim McDonald, president of the North Dakota Dental Association, said there is a shortage of dentists in rural areas, but it is a distribution problem rather than a man-power shortage.

"If you look at the number of dentists that are licensed and practicing in North Dakota, there's an oversupply in cities like Bismarck and Fargo and an undersupply of folks serving in more rural areas," McDonald said.

He said over the last 10 years, dental associations have made an effort to recruit dentists back to the state, but said many of them flocked to larger cities.

Lonnie Neuberger, a Dickinson dentist who has been practicing for about 11 years, said when he went to dental school it was his intention to come back to the area.

Neuberger said he has friends who are dentists in bigger cities within the state that say they are having a hard time keeping their schedules full, although he said he stays busy.

While he feels the area has been keeping up as best it can with the demand for dental care, he said the next 10 years will "tell a lot."

"I don't think it's been bad yet, we've been kind of lucky," Neuberger said. "We've got a big drawing area, into Montana as far as Glendive, I know South Dakota, Lemmon, that area and as probably far north as Watford City."

Neuberger said he knows some students in dental school currently, and said he feels students are more concerned over where they want to live rather than where they will stay busy, adding he is fortunate to be living where he wants and still staying busy.

Some of the reasoning for the concentration in bigger cities may be the dentist's significant other, among other reasons.

"If you've gone away and fallen in love and now come back, perhaps your spouse may not be from North Dakota, they come to a small rural area, they might feel that maybe there's not enough to fulfill them," McDonald said. "Frankly, it's not just an issue with dentists, it's with physicians and even recruiting physicians to the state of North Dakota in general."

Those that come to practice in rural areas may also wish to meet someone and start a family, but may not feel the opportunity is there, he added.

"It's more of a social reason rather than a desire not to practice there," McDonald said. "A lot of times a spouse may have a career and that opportunity doesn't exist in a smaller community."

Bonnie Anderson, a dentist who has been practicing in Bowman for about 23 years, said she came back to the area after dental school because she and her family lived there previously and she has family in the area.

Anderson said she stays quite busy and is careful about taking on new patients due to being so busy, but will handle emergencies.

"It's amazing how far they'll (dental patients) travel," Anderson said. "There's another dentist in town, so I'm fortunate, and there's a dentist in Hettinger, too, so that helps us out."

The state's dental association has worked on incentives for dentists to move to rural areas, including a payback agreement which helps with portion of the dentists' tuition costs when they commit to a certain amount of time in a rural community.

"It often just boils down to where a person feels they'll be happy," McDonald said.