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Will dental therapists “change the world” (of U.S. dental care) in 2015?

By David Jordan, Project Director, Community Catalyst


David JordanChange is hard. Change takes time. Change is worth fighting for especially when it relates to improving access to oral health care. Faced with an oral health crisis, a decade ago the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC) turned to a nearly century-old dental provider model to provide care to their underserved residents. Yet, rather than being championed for employing an innovative and cost-effective approach to address their dental crises, the ANTHC was sued by the American Dental Association. The ANTHC prevailed and as a result, introduced a proven, culturally-competent and patient-centered approach to delivering dental care in the United States. Today, dental therapists are helping 40,000 previously unserved people get care where they live, when they need it.

The innovative approach adopted by ANTHC has become the most disruptive policy solution offered in oral health policy in a generation. As a result of Alaska’s example, Minnesota authorized dental therapists to provide routine and preventive care to the state’s underserved residents. Now, over a dozen states and tribal organizations are pursuing policy change to authorize dental therapists.

After nearly a decade in existence in the United States, the movement to establish the practice of dental therapy is gaining significant momentum despite the strong and well-financed opposition from the American Dental Association. In 2014, we saw great progress:

  • ANTHC celebrated 10 years of dental therapy and dental therapists increasing access to over 40,000 Alaska Natives
  • The Minnesota Department of Health issued a report highlighting that dental therapists that have practiced in Minnesota since 2011 and have expanded access to care, reduced wait times for rural patients, and can potentially reduce hospital ER visits for dental problems. They’ve also improved how dental teams function and as result are making care better for patients.
  • Maine passed legislation to establish the practice of dental therapists
  • The Washington Post editorialized in support of dental therapists
  • The New York Times featuring dental therapists in Social Fixes Column and then a month later noting that dental therapists are “changing the world.”
  • The Albuquerque Journal endorsed using dental therapists to address New Mexico’s unmet health needs.

As we start 2015, over half a dozen states are pursuing legislation to expand access to dental care by adding dental therapists to the dental team.

Building Momentum for Mid-Level Dental Providers

In New Mexico, which nearly established dental therapists last year, we’re seeing public health leadership such as Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. Alfred Vigil highlighting the need for better care.

The reason there is so much momentum is the growing body of evidence highlighting the efficacy of the model in providing care to vulnerable populations and the significant unmet oral health needs in the nation, for example:

  • More than 181 million Americans go without regular dental visits
  • More than four out of ten children go without regular dental care
  • 51 percent of children on Medicaid did not receive any dental care in 2011, and
  • 45 million people live in areas where they can’t get dental care – and millions more can’t afford it

Now policymakers and the media are recognizing that dental therapists are part of the solution because the evidence that mid-level dental providers increase access to care and provide care at the same level of dentists is undisputed – with more than 1,100 articles showing that dental therapists increase access to quality, safe care.

Even the ADA’s own study found that “[a] variety of studies indicate that appropriately trained midlevel providers are capable of providing high quality services.” The same report noted that dental teams with mid-level providers were more successful at providing services to populations with untreated decay than dental teams with dentists alone.

Thankfully, state legislatures across the country are poised to make mid-level providers part of the solution to our lack of affordable dental care. We expect more to be launched this year. We also expect more states to authorize mid-level dental providers because, like Maine in 2014, policymakers will recognize how essential dental health is to maintaining overall health in their communities. Change is imminent.

Community CatalystCommunity Catalyst is a national, non-profit consumer advocacy organization founded in 1998 with the belief that affordable quality health care should be accessible to everyone. We work in partnership with national, state and local organizations, policymakers, and philanthropic foundations to ensure consumer interests are represented wherever important decisions about health and the health system are made: in communities, courtrooms, statehouses and on Capitol Hill. For more information, visit www.communitycatalyst.org.

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