Health professionals recommend more dental therapy training programs and additional support for candidates to enter the profession
Concluding that dental therapy improves access to oral health care and offers “clear benefits” to vulnerable and underserved communities, a new report from a federal advisory committee calls on Congress and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to implement policies that will advance the burgeoning practice.
“Nearly 60 million people in the United States live in areas where there aren’t enough dental professionals to meet their needs,” said Dr. Larry Hill, president of the National Coalition of Dentists for Health Equity. “By expanding the dental team to include highly trained dental therapists, states can close the access gap and ensure more people—especially seniors, people of color, and those living in rural areas—get the quality oral care they need. This new federal report is the latest data point showing that dental therapists are a proven way to increase access to high-quality dental care for all.”
Titled Supporting Dental Therapy through Title VII Training Programs: A Meaningful Strategy for Implementing Equitable Oral Health Care, the report was authored by Advisory Committee on Training in Primary Care Medicine and Dentistry (ACTPCMD), which advises the Department of Health and Human Services on improving public health measures. The committee is comprised of health professionals from various medical and dental fields.
The report calls for funding to support additional dental therapy training programs, supporting candidates to enter the profession through scholarships and loan repayment programs, supporting faculty that train dental therapists, and funding longitudinal tracking mechanisms.
Dental therapists—skilled dental professionals who provide commonly needed care like exams and fillings while freeing up dentists to perform more complicated procedures—have been working around the world for 100 years and in the U.S. since 2005, beginning in Alaska Native communities. Dental therapists are working or authorized in 13 states, but access to these providers remains blocked for many communities due to restrictive laws backed by a single special interest group, dental associations.
“Studies have shown that the use of dental therapists is associated with increased rates of preventive care, reduction in appointment wait times, and increased access,” the report says. “In addition, various studies have found that the technical quality of care provided by dental therapists within their scope of competency is comparable to that of a dentist. Also, financial models show that dental therapists are a cost-effective way for dental practices to expand the number of people they serve while maintaining or increasing their bottom line.”
“Dental therapists are improving health in communities where care was hard to access or didn’t exist. These providers enjoy broad, bipartisan support—but unfortunately, a small but politically powerful group of self-interested dentists and lobbyists see dental therapists as competition instead of partners in the oral health workforce,” said Tera Bianchi, Dental Access Project Director at Community Catalyst. “We encourage policymakers and local leaders to read this new report and listen to the evidence: dental therapists increase access to care, create good-paying jobs and strengthen communities throughout the country.”