Who Are "Underserved Patients"?
The definition of underserved is not precise but generally includes five populations of patients.
- Patients with family incomes below 200% of the federal poverty level. This group accounts for the largest number of underserved and tends to have low utilization of dental services and poor oral health.
- Patients with medical disabilities or chronic illness. A significant percentage of the population has physical or mental disabilities that make it difficult for them to travel to dental offices and to find dentists who have the special clinical experience to treat them.
- Patients residing in geographically isolated or medically underserved areas. In rural areas of the country there are relatively fewer dentists per capita. This makes it more difficult to schedule visits with dentists and to travel to their offices. In many urban areas, there is a maldistribution of dentists willing to serve vulnerable populations.
- Patients with limited literacy. Over a million new immigrants enter the United States annually, and many have language and cultural barriers to accessing dental care. Other residents may have low literacy skills and be unable to navigate the health care system.
- Patients confined to residential settings. Millions of Americans are confined to long-term care facilities (e.g., nursing homes, prisons, and chronic care facilities for the mentally and physically disabled). Most of these institutions provide limited, if any, dental care, and patients are too poor to obtain care privately.
There is considerable overlap among these five population groups, so a significant number of Americans face one or more of these barriers.