Dental Therapists Could be What America Needs

The nation may never forget the tragic — yet preventable — death of Deamonte Driver, a Maryland resident who died from an infection that spread from his mouth to his brain because his mother could not afford dental care. It is instances like these, along with an increased amount of emergency room visits due to oral health problems, that is a major cause for concern in the American oral health care industry.

Those who have dental insurance or the ability to pay out of pocket for top-of-the-line dental care are obviously covered. But those who do not have these luxuries are out of luck, for the most part. Sure, Medicaid is available to those who need it, but only a third of dentists accept it and as a result Americans have stopped seeking dental care altogether.

But one solution to this growing problem would be to have dental therapists in the industry. These people will perform the basic services: routine cleanings, cavity filling, etc. With an estimated 92% of adults aged 20 to 64 having experienced at least one dental cavity, the nation could benefit from these licensed therapists.

So far, nearly 50 different countries and a handful of states now allow dental therapists to practice in both public and private settings in order to alleviate the growing number of emergency room visits and overcrowded dental practices. The Pew Charitable Trusts recently released a promising report on the impact of dental therapists.

These therapists counseled patients about how to maintain proper oral health with establishing good hygiene habits. Discussing the importance of oral health could help curb the need for dental cosmetic work and other expensive procedures. Right now, an estimated 178 million people in the U.S. are missing at least one tooth — a number that should be much lower than it is.

Teeth extractions, cavity fillings, and other relatively simple procedures were also carried out by these dental therapists.

“There is a clear connection between gum disease and a person’s overall health. Numerous diseases, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease, have been linked to poor oral health,” says prosthodontist Dr. Mamaly Reshad of the Anacapa Dental Art Institute. “Someone may think that it is ‘just’ a toothache or ‘just’ bleeding gums, but they could really be harming themselves by not seeing a dentist.”

Due to the majority of people needing simple dental procedures, the number of patients seen skyrocketed. This was good news for more experienced and specialized dentists who would now be allowed to focus on more complicated procedures and surgeries and charge their patients properly. The earnings from these more expensive and complex procedures were found to easily provide a respectable salary for the dental therapists.

Right now, a few states are contemplating licensing dental therapists. However, the American Dental Association offered up a new plan to improve people’s access to dental care — but it did not mention dental therapists. Many dentists would rather have dental counselors who can teach patients how to maintain proper dental hygiene instead of performing small procedures.

It would not be in the nation’s best interest to prevent these dental therapists from practicing their trade because they can easily reduce the backlog of patients that need to be seen for simple fixes. And with the right training and supervision of these therapists, they can do plenty of dental work that doesn’t require an advanced degree, meaning they can start working sooner.

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