In a recent guest commentary in the Arizona Capitol Times, “Don’t follow Minnesota’s failed dental therapist experiment,” Robert Roda, president of the Arizona Dental Association, dismissed allowing dentists to hire dental therapists to help expand access to care in the Grand Canyon state.
Dental therapists — providers similar to nurse practitioners on a medical team — give routine care such as filling cavities and placing temporary crowns to patients in parts of Alaska, Minnesota, Oregon, and Washington. They will soon be providing care in Maine and Vermont, just as they have in more than 50 countries for almost 100 years.
Nearly two-thirds of Arizona’s population — 4.6 million people — live in dental shortage areas. Every county in the state is designated by the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration — either in part or in its entirety — as a “dental desert.”
Dental therapists working in mobile clinics or satellite offices could do much to provide routine treatment to rural patients and others who live in these dental deserts. But instead, a representative of the dental association refers to dental therapy as “an experiment.”
Since Dr. Roda’s commentary focused on Minnesota, it’s worth noting that the number of patients receiving care from dental therapists in that state is growing. In 2016 alone, dental therapists in Minnesota provided care in an estimated 94,392 patient visits, and they are now distributed throughout the state’s rural and urban areas in proportion to the distribution of the population at large.
Dental therapists are in great demand in Minnesota by private practice dentists, community health centers, and other dental practices. They’re expanding access for underserved populations in the state, where they’re more likely to work in community-based or nonprofit settings or clinics than are other dental professionals. And because dental therapists make a substantially lower salary than dentists, Minnesota dentists who participate in Medicaid can stretch their reimbursement rates further by employing dental therapists.
In addition to the mounting evidence of how well the use of dental therapists is working in Minnesota, more than 1,000 studies and assessments show that dental therapy provides safe and effective care.
In fact, after seeing the impact and benefits dental therapists have created in Minnesota since the program began in 2011, the Minnesota Dental Association no longer opposes the use of dental therapists in the state.
At The Pew Charitable Trusts, we base our policy recommendations on facts and data. Our analysis is rigorous. And we support dental therapy because the evidence is clear – it expands access to dental care.
— John Grant is director of the dental campaign for The Pew Charitable Trusts.
The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.