Dental Costs and Access: the Growing Trend of Dental Therapists

SRP 2Access to affordable dental care in this country is not evenly spread. Rowena Venture, director of We Are the Uninsured in Cleveland knows firsthand the effects that the lack of affordable dental care can have. She tells stories of how a woman she knew died on the streets after losing her job because she was unable to see a dentist, and of how her own son wound up pulling out one of his teeth and losing three more after he contracted an infection.

Every day, millions of Americans, struggle and suffer because they can’t access or afford dental care. In 2010, 181 million children and adults went without any dental care at all.

The evidence demonstrating mid-level dental health providers (dental therapists) are able to deliver safe, high-quality care in a cost effective way is gaining significance as health industry leaders and dental clinics look at more ways to increase access to dental care with limited available resources. This can be seen in recent trends of independent research and support from both policymakers and dentists.

First, Senators Max Baucus and Charles Grassley issued a Joint Staff Report in which they noted that access to dental services is a concern and allowing mid-level providers is a common-sense, more affordable solution.

Dr. Richard Katz, a California dentist and business owner, raised this issue again, in an op-ed in the Huffington Post, where he emphasized that dental therapists “can improve the lack of access to many Americans, as one in seven live in an area where there is very little availability. These mid-level practitioners would be able to serve more people at a lower cost.”

And, the Washington Post’s Wonkblog carried a piece by Harold Pollack that shed light on the severe problems with the dental delivery and financing system in the U.S. Some 85 million Americans lack dental insurance; Pollack argues that while raising Medicaid rates for dental services is important, money alone won’t solve the problem. One significant method of bringing dental care to Medicaid patients, he says, is to “expand services provided by mid-level providers known as dental therapists.” This is exactly what dental therapists in Alaska and Minnesota are doing, as a recent report released by Community Catalyst demonstrates: increasing the capacity of safety-net providers to treat under-served populations in their communities.

This current trend is shifting towards the practice of dental therapists becoming the norm, similar to the way that the practice of medical mid-level professions such as nurse and physician practitioners is the norm today. Demographic realities and the changing climate of the market will continue to drive this trend.