When Bernadette Charles was a child, the dentist only visited her rural Alaskan tribal community once every two years. In between these visits, residents either had to endure toothaches, cavities, and other ailments, or pay to travel long distances to seek care in more developed parts of the state.
What Charles and her community faced is not uncommon in many low-income and underserved areas of the country, where it is hard to attract dentists.
But thanks to the training Charles recently received as a dental therapist, the oral health needs of her community will be met locally in a timely, cost-effective, and safe way.
“Fifty million people in the United States live in dentist shortage areas and don’t have good access to care,” says EDC’s Al Yee. “Dental therapists are one part of a potential solution to help alleviate the problem and can be part of a dentist-led team that provides treatment to those who cannot get dental care now.”
Charles received her training through the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium’s pilot program, which was supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) and other funders. Now, the WKKF is funding an effort, working with EDC and other partners, to bring the program to other areas of the country.
“Oral health is key to overall health,” says Gail C. Christopher, vice president, program strategy at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, “and unfortunately each year, nearly 17 million children in the U.S. go without much-needed dental care either because they can’t afford it without insurance, or they don’t have access to a dentist where they live.”
The dental therapy profession began almost 90 years ago in New Zealand, and today therapists are working in more than 50 countries around the world. Dental therapists receive two years of intensive training after high school and work under the general supervision of dentists.
Yee and others are encouraged by the success of the program in other countries and in Alaska. A recent evaluation of the Alaska program found that the dental therapists there provided safe, competent, and appropriate care, reaffirming similar findings from other prior studies.
“We need more dentists and we need dental therapists—as part of the dentist-led team—who will do some preventive work, and importantly, also perform restorative work, such as fillings, and when necessary, simple extractions,” says Yee.
Together with WKKF and other national partners, EDC is working to raise awareness about the role dental therapists can play to help improve access to dental care in underserved communities, starting in five states: Kansas, New Mexico, Ohio, Vermont, and Washington. To accommodate dental therapists, most states must change their practice acts for dentistry that would allow dental therapists to practice. Efforts to change these laws are currently being met with resistance by some organizations and encouragement by others.
“While not all dentists see the potential of this effort, there is a growing number of dentists who are learning more about the dental therapist model, see it as a part of an overall solution, and are working with us,” says Yee.
Originally published on May 2, 2011