Christy Jo Fogarty, Dental Therapist in Minnesota, with her pediatric patient

Therapists: Extra Hands for Dentists Mean More Smiles

Physician Assistants (PAs) have been a welcome addition to medical teams across the country. They receive much of the same training as physicians, can treat simple conditions, and perform some procedures. This helps take the burden off of doctors, which are already in short supply. Now the dental world is following suit.

In 2009, Minnesota became the first state to recognize dental therapists as midlevel professionals. They get a dual bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene and master’s in dental therapy, which requires 32 months of course work – much of the same work as dental students who complete the program. After passing a state exam, they are authorized to clean teeth and fill cavities.

Dental therapists must work under supervision of a licensed dentist, either in a private practice or public health clinic. Since the program started, there are more than 60 dental therapists across the state. The model was originally adopted by nonprofits and community clinics to lower costs, but now private practices are hiring them as well.

Thousands of children have never been to a dentist, and only a third of American dentists accept Medicaid. These dental therapists make dental services accessible even to the lowest income people, including the rural immigrant communities of the Twin Cities.

Alaska, Maine, and Vermont have also authorized dental therapy. Some Oregon tribes are testing out the program. It was proposed in Michigan, where the state Dental Association urged members to oppose the bill. A shortage of dental access means there are more than 5,000 people per dental provider. Most of Michigan’s counties have at least one shortage area, and having dental therapists available would be a great help.

The Federal Trade Commission is urging dental school accreditors to make it easier to train midlevel professionals like these dental therapists to increase the number of basic dental services, reduce costs, and expand access to dental care.

Minnesota has found that the dental therapists provide competent, safe, and effective treatments. They are being hired on at private practices to help the practices grow in rural areas. The point is not to compete, but to bring a welcome additional set of hands, resulting in numerous more smiles every day.
Boehm, Eric. “You Don’t Need to Be a Dentist to Fill a Cavity.” Articles. The Wall Street Journal, 19 Aug 2016. Web. 24 Aug 2016.

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