WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) – If you have an oral emergency in the Wilmington area and need a surgeon’s help quickly, you may be out of luck.
There are only a handful of oral surgeons practicing in New Hanover County, and two more in neighboring Brunswick County, to serve the needs of hundreds of thousands of residents living in our five-county viewing area. There are no oral surgeons in the more rural, surrounding counties of Columbus, Bladen, and Pender.
“To speak to New Hanover County, it’s been a fairly stable number of oral surgeons in New Hanover County for quite some time, and that really goes against the pattern of population growth there,” UNC Sheps Center Deputy Director and health policy expert Tom Ricketts told WECT. “One would expect more oral surgeons and more dentists in general moving into New Hanover County. The fact that there really are a stable number of oral surgeons is — I wouldn’t say it was a concern — but it goes against a general pattern of growth in the distribution of dental professionals where they follow the population.”
New Hanover County had seven oral surgeons in 2000, but just six in 2019, despite a huge population surge during that time frame. There were nine oral surgeons working here in 2016, but some left, and some had their licenses suspended.
Dr. Michael Hassan had his license to practice suspended in 2019 following his arrest on charges for sexually abusing patients. Then, this year, Dr. Mark Austin had his license suspended and practice shut down in the midst of an SBI investigation. Austin was already under investigation after a prominent doctor died last summer following a dental procedure in his care. His issues intensified when he was accused of abusing opioids. According to documents obtained from the Dental Board, Austin is believed to have prescribed narcotics to staff members and consumed controlled substances himself.
WECT has heard from residents with dental emergencies, like painful abscesses and broken teeth with exposed nerves that needed to be extracted, who were told it would take one to two weeks for them to get an appointment with an oral surgeon here.
There are 186 oral surgeons statewide. Having six in New Hanover County isn’t drastically below average on its face, but when considering there are so few in surrounding counties, and the long drive to other population centers in the state with more oral surgeons, the problem is exaggerated.
“The county is some distance from other North Carolina counties. It’s actually closer to some resources in South Carolina that are closer than other places in North Carolina — medical centers, dental centers, that kind of thing,” Ricketts explained of the geographic isolation. “It is on an edge and those types of places present specific problems for matching the resources to the population needs.”
The East Carolina University School of Dentistry was established in 2006, in part to address the lack of dental resources in the eastern part of the state. Previously, the dental school at UNC Chapel Hill was the only one in the state. But training dentists in Eastern North Carolina doesn’t guarantee they’ll stay here.
When dentists and oral surgeons become aware there is a demand for more providers in a particular place, filling that void is not an overnight process. Many are already established elsewhere and don’t want to move, while other contenders may still be finishing their training and residencies to become oral surgeons.
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