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How Dental Therapists Are Improving Access To Healthcare

June 9, 2014
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How Dental Therapists Are Improving Access To Healthcare
Dentist Therapists, who perform basic oral health, have been suggested as a means for dental practices to see more patients and generate more income. Getty Images
These dental professionals are filling more than just cavities.

Most people cringe when they think of their next dentist appointment: The drilling, the cleaning, the constant reminder that you should floss more often. But it’s a necessity, one of which 47 million Americans don’t have access to in dentist shortage areas.

Some state leaders, like Mark Eves, Maine’s speaker of the house, are even calling their situation an “oral health crisis.”

Dental therapists might be the solution. They are professionals who receive two years of training and can perform basic oral health tasks — including checkups, cleanings, filling cavities, and extractions. Although there has been strong resistance from dentists in hiring these oral professionals, many cases have shown positive results.

By hiring dental therapists, private practices are more likely to be able to provide their services to more people, including patients with Medicaid, whose insurance doesn’t cover the full cost of dental procedures. Dentists have also seen a boost in their profits.

According to Governing, when Dr. John Powers of Main Street Dental Care in Montevideo, Minnesota, hired his part-time dental therapist, Brandi Tweeter, he saw an extra $24,000 in profit over the course of 11 months. But that’s not all. The percentage of new patients at his practice rose to 38 percent, while Medicaid patients increased from 26 to 39 percent.

Such reform is beneficial not only for dental professionals, but for patients as well. Over 830,000 visits to the emergency room were caused by lack of dental preventative care in 2009, according to a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Additionally, poor dental health also leads to more serious health issues, including heart disease and diabetes.

The health risks are undeniably real, but the licensing of dental therapist is illegal in most states. According to USA Today, Minnesota was the first state to allow these professionals to work with dentists in 2009, and states like Vermont, Kansas, and New Mexico are pushing for reform. However, opposition continues to be mainstream, where most states and organizations — including the American Dental Association (ADA) — refuse to acknowledge dental therapists.

Although the ADA is opposed to the hiring of dental therapists and bills that will allow licensing to these professionals, one thing is clear: Dental therapists continue to help private practices gain more business, but most importantly, they’re providing healthcare to patients who need it most.

“I see us as another provider who is able to work along with dentists,” Heather Luebeen, a dental therapist, told USA TODAY. “The more people we have trained the more people who can care for others.”

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