By Martin J. Kidston
A shortage of practicing dentists in the Havre community has people in need of dental care waiting on a backlog that extends well into the next millennium.
With only five practicing dentists left in the Havre area, tooth care doesnt come easy for this community of nearly 11,000 residents.
In fact, according to Lynn Wehrly, a dental assistant at Rector, Olson and Jestrab, some doctors are so busy with current patients that they have stopped accepting new ones. And for the lucky few who are able to book an appointment, they may have to wait at least six months before it takes place, pushing the backlist of patients into March of 2000.
Were booked solid from the time we open to the time we close, Wehrly said. Were booked until November just to get in to see a doctor, thats more than three months in advance, and if you want to get your teeth cleaned, were booked for that until March of next year.
Dr.Gerald Olson shares a practice with two other dentists and six hygienists, making Rector, Olson and Jestrab the largest clinic in the area. Nevertheless, despite the clinics large staff, it is unable to keep up with the rigorous demand placed upon it.
The dental population has been reduced in Havre by 50 percent over the last six years, Olson said. In the last three years, nine active dentists across the Hi-Line have retired. Every town on the Hi-Line is under-served.
Olson said the problem isnt unique to Havre and the Hi-Line alone, but is shared by most rural communities across the country. However, where northcentral Montana is concerned, its become a matter of location, as the attraction of western Montana has stolen the growth, and with it, the dentists.
We dont have a dental shortage, we have a distribution problem, Olson said. Go to Kalispell, Whitefish or Missoula, and the dentists there are practically stepping on each other.
Whether it be a distribution problem or simply a shortage of dentists, Olson said the problem is so severe that several doctors have tried to recruit dentists, going as far as to offer thousands of dollars in free equipment to anyone willing to practice in the Havre community. But with the search entering its second year, it has met with little success. Retired dentist Dr. Frank Searl said the shortage is no laughing matter.
What we really need is probably two or three more dentists in this area, Searl said. Its terrible right now for these dentists. Theyre working themselves to death trying to take care of people, and people are going out of town because they dont have any choice.
Searl, who calls the shortage of dentists an acute emergency, said efforts to find doctors willing to come into Havre remains an on-going and far-reaching effort. The S.O.S has long since gone out in the form of advertising to the Montana Dental Association and several dental magazines, which receive national publication.
Theres even a posting at the University of Minnesota, Searl said.
Despite the seemingly pessimistic outlook on the future of dentistry in the area, Searl did admit to a ray of optimism.
Ive spoken to one person from Maine, one from Virginia and a woman from Kalispell, and theyre all very interested in what we have to offer, Searl said. They just cant believe the deal we have for them, such as the major dental equipment, which is still here for their use and its free to any dentist willing to come to this area.
Nobody has shown up yet, and as the dental crisis continues, Searl said, a short wait may be required before recruiting efforts are realized.
Until a few dentists do show up in the Havre community, Searl said the crisis will likely continue.
Doctor Olson agreed, and said he fears the few dentists who are left may reach burn-out if they continue working at their current pace.
People are constantly twisting our arms trying to get an appointment, Olson said.