In a recent commentary in the Arizona Capitol Times, “Lawmakers Should Reject Pew Proposal for ‘Dental Therapists’” (November 29), representatives of the Arizona Dental Association and the Arizona Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons questioned a proposal to expand the availability of dental providers by licensing highly trained dental therapists. The proposal was recently approved by the joint Arizona Senate and House Health Committee of Reference. If it passes in the upcoming legislative session, dental therapists — midlevel providers much like physician assistants on a medical team — could help make preventive and routine restorative dental care more accessible in Arizona.
The commentary’s writers called the use of dental therapists an “experiment” — an odd way to describe a profession that has existed in more than 50 countries for nearly 100 years. A global review in 2012 of more than 1,000 studies and evaluations found that dental therapists provide safe, effective care. In the United States, dental therapists began practicing in Alaska in 2005. Since then, the use of dental therapists has been authorized statewide or on tribal lands in an additional five states, and more than a dozen other states are considering approving their use in order to improve access to care for underserved people.
Additionally, it was misleading for the commentary’s writers to imply that dental therapists in Minnesota, where dental therapists are serving in both public and private settings, have not increased access to care in rural areas. Forty-eight percent of dental therapists in the state work outside the Twin Cities, and many who are based in a metropolitan area travel regularly to remote clinics in rural areas to provide care. And even dental therapists who practice in Minnesota’s urban areas largely treat underserved people: Eighty-four percent of patients seen by dental therapists in the state in 2014 were on Medicaid or other public insurance programs.
The Pew Charitable Trusts applies a rigorous, analytical approach to improve public policy in ways that will help solve some of today’s most challenging problems. Pew supports the use of dental therapists because it’s a proven solution to address oral health disparities and to improve access to oral health care.
— John Grant is director of the Pew Dental Campaign.
The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.