Backers of dental therapist profession find support in national poll

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.

Photo: John Twohig via Flickr

Photo: John Twohig via Flickr

A national telephone survey conducted on the eve of the 2016 election went beyond the usual queries about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. It questioned likely voters about dental care.

The responses serve as a reminder about the barriers millions of Americans face in obtaining oral health services: 34 percent of respondents said they had faced challenges paying for dental care.

The poll, conducted by Lake Research Partners and funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, also probed popular support for the use of dental workers with a limited scope of practice to expand care. For example, 81 percent of respondents do favor “a new type of dental provider similar to a nurse practitioner” being allowed to work in their state. Oral health advocates have hailed the news as more evidence that Americans are ready to adopt dental therapists, a model used for decades in many other countries around the world.

Dental therapists are technically trained providers who work as part of dentist-headed teams, offering a range of procedures including drilling, filling and extracting teeth. The support for such providers reflected in the recent election eve survey almost exactly replicates the conclusions of a similar 2011 poll in which 80 percent of respondents favored dental workers, Theresa Pablos reported in a Jan. 5 story at DrBicuspid.com.

The dental therapist model has the backing of philanthropies including the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, which funded this recent study, and the Pew Charitable Trusts, as well as grassroots groups such as Community Catalyst. The organizations say dental therapists could serve as cost-effective dental extenders, expanding basic care to poor and rural communities that often lack dentists.

“Dental therapists can offer much better access to care, for the most underserved populations, at considerably lower cost to the system,” said health care improvement advocate Donald Berwick, former administrator of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, in a statement from Community Catalyst about the survey results.

In 2015, the agency responsible for overseeing dental education in the United States announced it was moving forward with plans to establish a national accreditation.

But several state and federal organized dental groups, including the American Dental Association, have remained firmly opposed to dental therapists. They argue that only dentists should be allowed to perform what are called “irreversible surgical procedures.”

In spite of such resistance dental therapists are now at work in tribal communities in Alaska, Washington and Oregon. Minnesota, Maine and Vermont have also approved the use of the model. Additional states also are examining the use of dental therapists, according to a recent Pew analysis.

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