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Frontlines of dental care show tremendous need in Arizona

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In a recent article titled, “Dental therapist proposal to get new hearing before lawmakers,” Arizona Capitol Times readers heard from legislators that they do not believe we have a dentist shortage here in Arizona, despite overwhelming evidence, and federal reports, to the contrary.

That same article provided data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services showing that we have numerous counties designated as “health professional shortage areas” with 435 dentists needed to fill the need throughout the state.

Even more recently, dentists and hygienists will not be participating in Hope Fest, Tucson’s annual event for low income residents to receive free hygiene and, historically, dental care. The event usually attracts more than 10,000 Arizonans from the Tucson area. Even the Arizona Dental Association agrees that this single event cannot address the systemic shortages and need in our community.

Alicia Thompson

Alicia Thompson

These facts don’t lie. However, while numbers certainly tell a compelling story about Arizona’s oral health crisis and the need for expanding access to care, they don’t tell the whole story. As someone who works on the frontlines of our state’s oral health delivery system, I can tell you that I see overwhelming need every single day in my position as the dental department manager for El Rio Community Health Center’s dental clinics.

True state of oral health in the community

The El Rio Community Health Center in Tucson operates the largest nonprofit dental program in the state. We see patients for everything from crowns and dentures to cleanings and filling cavities.

We have approximately 125 oral health professionals who care for nearly 25,000 patients with 53,000-plus visits each year. The services provided by El Rio are critical to our community, but it’s not enough. We know there are significant numbers of individuals who aren’t getting consistent dental care, and we don’t have to look very far to see this. El Rio provides medical care to 95,000 individuals, but only 25,000 of those individuals receive oral health care from our dental clinics. While we don’t know the exact percentage, we are fairly confident that the majority of people who don’t get their oral health care from us are simply going without.

In fact, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services,
36 percent of children, 44 percent of adults and 67 percent of seniors lack dental health coverage to help with their oral care needs.

This is leading to long wait times for appointments at clinics like ours and tremendous turnout for singular events, such as Hope Fest. In light of all of this, how can anyone claim that Arizona doesn’t have a dentist shortage or has adequate resources to meet our oral health needs for all Arizonans?

Multiple solutions are needed

What we need now more than ever are smart solutions to our mounting health care delivery challenges. That is why I am part of the Dental Care for Arizona Coalition; a diverse group of community health organizations, business leaders, research institutions and concerned citizens eager to see Arizona welcome dental therapists into our state.

Similar to a physician’s assistant, dental therapists help dentists provide routine services to more patients, often in low income or rural communities, and often at a lower cost to clinics, such as ours. If El Rio were allowed to utilize this proven member of the dental team, we would be able to see countless more patients.

It is no wonder that multiple states have already licensed these qualified health professionals and are seeing an impact, while dozens more states are considering new legislation. Arizona deserves to be at the forefront of dental therapy as another tool that community health care organizations can use to address Arizona’s oral health care crisis.

That is why I’d like to call on the sunrise hearing committee members to approve the Dental Care for Arizona application and allow the full Legislature to hear about this innovative solution.

— Alicia M. Thompson, MSW, is with the Southern Arizona Oral Health Coalition.

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The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.

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