How Dental Therapists Are Changing Dental Care

Published September 15, 2016

A growing number of states and tribal communities are allowing dentists to employ dental therapists to help meet the growing need for routine dental care.

The Pew Charitable Trust defines dental therapists as “midlevel providers, similar to physician assistants in medicine, whom dentists hire to extend quality care to more patients, expand their practices, and deliver treatment to underserved populations.” They can also bring care directly to schools or nursing homes under the supervision of a dentist. Dental therapists provide preventive and routine care, such as filling cavities, placing temporary crowns on teeth, and extracting severely diseased or loose teeth.

Writing for The Huffington Post, Sam Cohen examined the potential benefits of increasing the number of dental therapists. Cohen says dental teams across the nation are being expanded to include mid-level workers, many of whom are considered dental therapists. “More states like Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio, and Washington are lending an ear to such proposals to legalize [dental therapists].”

In a recent Research & Commentary, State Government Relations Manager Logan Pike argues dental therapy is gaining popularity throughout the United States. “In 2009, Minnesota became the first state to authorize the licensing of dental therapists. In 2016, legislation was filed in 12 states to authorize dental therapists. Dental therapists are currently practicing in Alaska and Minnesota, and they have been authorized to practice in Vermont and in tribal communities in Oregon and Washington State, which are in the process of implementing their laws.”

Eric Boehm, a reporter at, examines the dentist shortage in a recent Hit & Run blog post. Boehm argues in favor of reforming state dental licensing laws to help increase the number of dental therapists. “Children’s Dental Services … treats about 30,000 patients each year, mostly from the Twin Cities’ Hispanic, Hmong and Somali immigrant communities. The dental therapy model was first adopted by nonprofits and community clinics to lower costs, says Karl Self, the director of the University of Minnesota’s therapy program. But now, Dr. Self adds, private practices are hiring dental therapists, too. ‘We’re seeing that dental therapists can add value to the overall oral health team,’ he says.”

The field of dentistry is changing, and states desperately need to reform the care delivery system to address oral-health needs. Regular access to basic check-ups can prevent the majority of painful and costly dental issues. Dental therapists can improve the productivity and efficiency of dental practices, help increase access to care, give dentists the option to serve more patients inside and outside the office, and free up dentists to focus on more complicated procedures.

Lawmakers should work to close gaps in dental-care access by reforming dental licensing laws to allow for dental therapists and ensure patients get preventive and restorative treatment when and where they need it.

What We’re Working On

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Energy & Environment
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Health Care
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