Dr. Steven Harrop, of Winthrop Dental Care, will take his last appointment Thursday (Dec. 30) after 25 years in the Methow Valley and 43 total years as a dentist.
In that time, he said he’s seen a lot of Methow Valley kids grow up through their visits, and got to know their families as well.
“It is pretty cool, and that is one of the things that was appealing, to know people and know their families,” he said.
Harrop began his career as a dentist in Western Washington, and lived in Issaquah before moving to the area with his wife and their adopted sons. They vacationed in the Methow Valley, he said, and were never quite ready to head back home when the vacation was over.
“It’s been wonderful … practicing here,” he said. “You know, it’s pretty low key and the lifestyle is a lot different than it was in the city. I had a pretty big office in the city and I could see I wasn’t going to be able to sustain that for my whole life.”
At 70, Harrop said he can still work, but that it’s time to pursue his other interests, like biking and skiing. The profession can be stressful and draining, especially in a big-city practice, but in a small town too.
“People don’t realize it, but dentistry is really an intricate service,” he said. “It’s pretty intense and people are not exactly thrilled to be here, usually, having dental work.”
As Harrop has told patients about his upcoming retirement — just in time for his 70th birthday on January 1 — he said they’ve been very encouraging and make a point to congratulate him.
More patients than appointments
Two years ago, Harrop put his practice on the market, with the intention of retiring but keeping the practice open under a new dentist’s ownership. He didn’t find any takers, but he’s still hoping to find someone to take over the business in the near term.
“I feel really bad just closing,” he said. “We need a couple dental offices in the valley at least.”
Harrop’s office will be open for phone calls and for patients to arrange for their files to be transferred for a few months, he said.
When Harrop closes up shop this month, Dr. John O’Keefe’s Sawtooth Dental Care in Twisp will be the only local dental clinic. Family Health Centers (FHC) closed their Twisp Dental Clinic in spring 2020.
“We made the decision to close that because at that time we were open three days a week and we didn’t even have full schedules at that time,” said Julie Downs, director of dental operations for FHC.
They also didn’t have dedicated staffing to the Twisp office — a situation worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We would send a provider and staff from our Okanogan clinic over to Twisp to provide those services, but that also put a strain on our Okanogan clinic,” she said.
O’Keefe said the loss of both Harrop and Family Health Centers’ clinic, along with the increase in full-time residents in the valley since the start of the pandemic, has meant a drastic jump in demand for his services. O’Keefe said he had 300 new patients this year before Harrop announced his retirement. After Harrop’s announcement, more calls for transferring patients came flooding in than they could handle.
“Like any operation or any business … there’s only so much you can do,” O’Keefe said.
The clinic has temporarily stopped taking new patients, but has about 50 people on a waiting list for an appointment, he said. Cleaning appointments have been scheduled out through spring, at least, he said.
Sawtooth has increased its office hours to five days a week, O’Keefe said, and is working to accommodate patient’s schedules and emergencies.
Harrop said he called around to clinics in Okanogan, Omak and Pateros to ask about referrals for his patients, and learned many of them were also too full to accept new patients. He’s hoping the vacuum of dental services will draw in some new blood, but said recruiting is hard in rural areas.
O’Keefe said he’s been referring people to Wenatchee-area dentists.
“We have this exodus of people from the city coming here; you’d think a few dentists would figure it out,” O’Keefe said.
O’Keefe, like Harrop, has worked as a dentist for more than 40 years and has worked in the Methow Valley since 2000. He said he also wanted to get out of the “rat race” of city life.
When he moved out here, he planned to spend a few days a week working on people’s teeth, and the rest skiing. At first, he felt some stress because he didn’t have enough patients. Being in the opposite situation has given him a new perspective, he said.
Filling the void
While the shortage of dentists is a frustrating problem for someone with a toothache, there are solutions in the works.
O’Keefe is planning to hire one or two hygienists in the future, and has also advertised for a sterilization assistant and an experienced dental assistant. Some positions can be trained at the office, while others, like hygienists, need college-level training. He’s also trying to network with his alma mater, the University of Washington School of Dentistry, on recruiting.
“That’s one way we’re trying to deal with it,” he said. “Finding people from out of town to come into town and move, with our housing issues, is difficult.”
Family Health Centers is planning to offer dental services at its Twisp Medical Clinic using its mobile dental clinic on a limited basis, Downs said.
“We can bring hygiene out there a couple of days out of the month; if the need is there we might do it weekly,” she said.
Providers can also use the mobile unit for limited exams, minor fillings and minor extractions, but more complicated work would need to be done at the clinic.
Family Health Centers is working on hiring at least two more dentists and is eyeing a return to providing a brick-and-mortar dental clinic in Twisp as part of its long-term planning.
“We plan on expanding our [Twisp] Medical Clinic facilities and [co-locating] a permanent dental clinic,” said FHC CEO Jesús Hernández. “We are currently seeking capital funding for that purpose.”
Recruiting dentists to a small-town practice is challenging for a number of reasons. Clinics are working to recruit people who want to live a rural lifestyle, and would make a commitment to stay here for a while. Family Health Centers often recruits younger dentists thanks to a collaboration with the University of Washington.
“It’s a lifestyle choice to live in Okanogan County or in Douglas County, it’s just not the lifestyle that a lot of people chose to have,” Downs said.
Harrop noted dental school graduates have a lot of debt and may want to live in heavily populated areas to earn enough to pay off those student loans while keeping up with the overhead expenses of a dental office. They may also make more money in a city. Others just don’t want to live in a rural area, or their spouses don’t want to, he said.
“We live here, so we don’t get it because we like it here and we just think everyone else is nuts,” O’Keefe said.