Covering the debate over expanded use of dental therapists

Mary Otto

About Mary Otto

Mary Otto, a Washington, D.C.-based freelancer, is AHCJ's topic leader on oral health, curating related material at healthjournalism.org. She welcomes questions and suggestions on oral health resources at mary@healthjournalism.org.

Will Drabold

Will Drabold

A recent news package in The Seattle Times by reporter Will Drabold took a look at how the controversy over dental therapists is unfolding in the state of Washington.

Drabold examined the challenges faced by poor Medicaid patients in seeking dental care. He spoke with health care advocates who believe that technically-trained mid-level providers could bring much-needed care to poor and isolated communities. He also interviewed tribal leader Brian Cladoosby, whose Swinomish tribe had just defied state restrictions to hire a dental therapist. And he spoke with state dental association officials, who made it clear that they – ­like the American Dental Association – believe dental therapists lack the training to perform these expanded duties.

Dental therapists, who often are compared to nurse practitioners, are trained to deliver a range of services including screenings, cleanings, preventive care, fillings and extractions. While the therapists do work under the supervision of dentists, dental groups often contend that dentists alone have the training to perform what they consider irreversible surgical procedures, such as drilling and extracting teeth.

In spite of resistance from organized dentistry, variations of the therapist model already are being used in Alaska’s tribal lands and in the state of Minnesota. Dental therapists have been approved in Maine and are being considered in a number of other states.

Since Drabold’s project ran in January, members of the Seattle Times’ editorial board have called upon Washington to explore licensing therapists.

“Too many of Washington’s residents insured by Medicaid are not able to get the dental care they need, which endangers their general health as well,” they noted in an editorial.

In this new Q&A, Drabold discusses how he approached the project and what he learned in his reporting. He also offers encouraging words to other journalists who might find themselves writing about the dental therapist controversy as it unfolds in their states.

One thought on “Covering the debate over expanded use of dental therapists

  1. Larry DreilingLarry Dreiling

    The dental therapist debate hasn’t stopped in Kansas, either, but it’s on the back burner given the fight over education costs.

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