More than 52 million Americans live in areas underserved by dental care providers. The areas are called "Dental Health Professional Shortage Areas (HPSAs)," and the government estimates that 10,094 more dentists need to be added to the nation's dental care system in order to fill the void (http://bhpr.hrsa.gov/shortage/). The New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/28/business/28teeth.html) has indicated that it is less than likely to happen immediately as the number of dentists in the country has plateaued since 1990 (and remains at about 150,000) despite the population growing by 22 percent. It is this imbalance between dental care providers versus public need that has forced several states and organization such as the American Association of Public Health Dentistry and the Kellogg Foundation to encourage the creation of a mid-level dental services provider called dental therapists.
Within the nation, the Center for Disease Control and Prevent call tooth decay an epidemic in children. While tooth decay may not a huge threat to adults, other organizations have proclaimed that gum disease is a public health concern for those over the age of 18. For both of those dental problems, professional dental care must be implemented as a remedy. It is that need combined with the nation's shortage of dentists that has forced the development of a dental therapist.
Dental therapists have not been officially designated as a legitimate dental care provider in the entire nation, so the definition of the dental health provider's role varies. However, generally a dental therapist is an authorized mid-level dental care provider requiring a degree in a specially constructed two-year program. Dental therapists can deliver dental treatments for bothpreventative dentistry and restorative dental care and depending on the state where they are authorized those treatments can include treating tooth decay, filling dental cavities, tooth extractions, providing dental cleanings and applying dental sealants without a prior exam or approval of a dentist.
Currently, within the nation Alaska and Minnesota have changed local laws to make the role of dental therapist possible. Other states including Kansas, New Mexico, Ohio, Vermont and Washington are also working towards developing both the education and role of dental therapists in state.
In 2008, The New York Times revealed Alaska as the leader in the trend. It was at that time that news of Alaska's dental therapy program became known to the rest of America. In state, dental clinics solely staffed by dental therapists, who have completed a specially designed two-year course of study, exists. Program participants must attend the University of Washington training center in Anchorage and once they graduate, they are only legally entitled to perform their craft on Alaska Natives and a dentist must evaluate their work.
Minnesota is taking the role of dental therapists further. Since 2008, the state has implemented legislative efforts to both authorize the dental therapist position as well as created educational guidelines for the role. Within the state, two types of providers dental therapists (both of which will need to get a bachelor's degree from the University of Minnesota) and advanced dental therapists (requiring a master's degree from the university). The first class of dental therapists will graduate in December 2011 (http://www.ohio.com/news/119583314.html).
In 2010, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation announced that it was funneling $16 million by 2014 towards its' Dental Therapist Project. Those efforts are being aimed at Kansas, New Mexico, Ohio, Vermont and Washington.
Although the American Dental Association (ADA) agrees that a new type of dental care provider would be helpful, they currently oppose the dental therapist role. Their main objection to the position is that "The ADA does not believe a nondentist should perform surgical/irreversible procedures," (http://www.ada.org/news/5940.aspx).
Instead, the ADA is supporting a more conservative dental care provider role called a dental aide. The dental aide position called a Community Dental Health Coordinator that would "...train community health aides to help poor people find dentists," (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/28/business/28teeth.html?adxnnl=1&pagewanted=2&;adxnnlx=1307725920-TXxhGk/udcBwKdj93SjFLw). The aides would provide those in need with a dental exam, decide who needed to see a dentist and then schedule their appointments. They would also be trained and authorized to place fluoride dental sealants.
In the here and now, visiting a professional dentist is the best way for patients to received the attention to their dental health that is needed to maintain general health. Individuals needing to find a dentist can count on 1-800-DENTIST to assist. 1-800-DENTIST has operators available 24/7 and can connect those in need to a great pre-screened dentist dedicated to improving oral health.