Dentist shortage in rural Alabama on the verge of a crisis

Northeast Alabama

JACKSON COUNTY, Ala. – Rural communities in Alabama have seen a decrease in the number of dentists practicing, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has data that some counties don’t have a single dentist listed.

News 19 spoke with Dr. Darren Barrilleaux of Progressive Dentistry who said he enjoys practicing dental care in Pisgah, Alabama and has for over 30 years. 

But he’s the only dentistry office for miles in Jackson County. 

“I’ve noticed a couple of older dentists that have retired and they couldn’t find anybody to replace them,” Dr. Barrilleaux said.

The state of Alabama is on the verge of facing a shortage of dental experts. The demand for more dentists since the pandemic is growing, but the supply of dental experts is running thin. 

The older dentists are now retiring at a much higher rate, putting rural areas on the verge of crisis. According to recent data by research experts at UAB, some counties in Alabama show almost no dentists at all. When those older dentists decide to retire in rural areas, a younger dentist is not there to take his place. 

“The state of Alabama has the lowest dentist to population ratio of all 50 states plus the District of Columbia. We are 51, not where we like to be,” explains Dr. Stephen Mitchell, a dentist and director of Civitan-Sparks Clinics at UAB.

A recent study performed by specialists at UAB finds that dental students are not coming to the rural areas to work because they are frequently hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt from student loans. Therefore, Dr. Mitchell explains, they are choosing the metro areas to continue their careers and to pay off these loans.

“It takes multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars to open a practice, so you’ve got to have a certain level of economic viability,” Dr. Barrilleaux said.

Dr. Barrilleaux is hopeful that his practice in Jackson County remains in the family, “Hopefully with my daughter. She’s getting ready to go to dental school so maybe she can come in eventually. But if not, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do I guess.” 

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