Minn. reporter shares insights on covering the dental therapist debate

Mary Otto

About Mary Otto

Mary Otto, a Washington, D.C.-based freelancer, is AHCJ's topic leader on oral health and the author of "Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America." She can be reached at mary@healthjournalism.org.

Stephanie Dickrell

The debate over dental therapists continues to roil state houses across the country.

Many organized dental groups contend the technically trained providers lack the skills to perform irreversible procedures such as drilling teeth. Meanwhile, public health and grassroots supporters of a wider use of dental therapists contend that this is a good way to get cost-effective, badly needed care to poor, underserved and rural communities.

Dental therapists have been providing care in Alaskan tribal areas for more than a decade. In 2009, Minnesota became the first state to adopt the model for use statewide. Now about 70 of the new dental workers, sometimes compared to nurse practitioners, are offering preventive and restorative care in clinics and dental offices around the state.

So how are Minnesota’s dental therapists doing so far? Are they making a difference? Reporter Stephanie Dickrell of the St. Cloud Times decided to find out. In one recent story, she reported that, while dental therapists still represent only a small fraction of Minnesota’s dental workforce, they appear to be helping reduce waiting times for appointments and increasing access to care in the communities they serve.

In this new Q&A for AHCJ, Dickrell offers insights into her reporting on dental needs in her community and the challenges and rewards she finds on her wide-ranging beat. She also provides tips to fellow reporters on reporting dental stories in their states.

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