Healthcare Careers: Dental Therapist

Healthcare Careers: Dental Therapist
Learn about how a dental therapy program available at one community college could revolutionize the field - and your career options.

It has become popular in Australia, New Zealand, and Great Britain. It has even been embraced in the rural villages of Alaska. Now, dental therapy is coming to the continental United States, thanks to a pilot training program offered through the state of Minnesota.

Dental therapy is the future wave, offering patients additional access to dental treatment, using a more cost-effective solution to many common dental issues. Dental therapists operate as middlemen between dentists and dental hygienists, offering many services usually provided by dentists but often at a fraction of the cost. The program was introduced in Minnesota to help reach the state's rural areas where people cannot access dentists easily due to distant locations and unaffordable fees.

This video offers a look at what a dental therapist does.

The English Example

According to the National Health Service website, dental therapists are a mainstay in countries like Great Britain, where approximately 380 were on the General Dental Council Role in 2002. Since then, dental therapists have been authorized to work in all areas of dentistry, including general dental practices. The therapist works directly with a registered dentist, providing the treatment that the dentist prescribes.

Dental therapists in England also have opportunities to move into other areas of the dental field, including research and teaching roles. A diploma course in dental therapy takes about 27 months to complete and includes a variety of topics, including preventative dentistry, extraction, and some restorative procedures.

Bringing it Home

In Minnesota, current dental hygienists are heading back to school to earn their degree in dental therapy, according to a report in the North County Times. Although the current program is only available at a handful of institutions, the hope is that the trend will grow, encompassing more schools and more states in desperate need of affordable, quality dental care for low-income families and those living in rural areas.

An article in the Lund Report states that Oregon is also looking at instituting a dental therapy program, with those receiving an Associate's degree from a community college gaining employment at community clinics and county health departments.

While many dental hygienists favor such a program, dentists are not so wild about the idea. Dr. Rick Asai, president of the Oregon Dental Association, told Lund Report, "Will the program deliver quality care at a reduced cost? That is a big question mark. The dental therapist's salary will be less than a dentist, but what they can deliver will also be less."

The Lund Report does note that dental therapy programs have traditionally gone forward without the initial approval of dentists in the area. Instead, they have been pushed through with legislation written by state politicians who recognize a need to provide more widespread dental care to the communities they serve. History shows that dental therapists can be valuable to the dental office when properly incorporated with the rest of the professional staff.

This video shows a day in the life of a dental therapy student.

What Can Dental Therapists Do?

The Australian Dental Association states that dental therapists examine and treat diseases of the teeth in children under the supervision of a dentist. The National Health Service lists some of the following duties of dental therapists:

  • Oral assessments
  • Scaling and polishing
  • Providing dental education to patients
  • Taking x-rays

While dental hygienists in this country typically perform these duties, there are other jobs performed by dental therapists in England as well, including:

  • Performing routine restorations
  • Extracting teeth
  • Placing pre-formed crowns
  • Providing emergency replacement crowns
  • Treating patients under sedation with the direct supervision of a dentist

According to the article in the North County Times, dental therapists in Minnesota will be able to:

  • Drill cavities
  • Extract baby teeth
  • Remove stitches
  • Cap nerves

More complex procedures and diagnostics will still be left to dentists in dental therapists' offices.

While many professional associations, including the American Dental Association, oppose incorporating dental therapists into dental offices, non-profit clinics are excited about broadening their services to a wider spectrum of patients. Dr. Michael Helgeson, who runs the non-profit Apple Tree Dental clinic network, told the North County Times that he is anxious to provide more affordable patient services. Dr. Helgeson estimates that each dental therapist Apple Tree Dental hires will save the clinic about $50,000 per year while maintaining the same level of service.

The country is watching Minnesota's pilot program for dental therapists to see whether this program will be the answer to improved dental service in rural and low-income areas. If the program succeeds, expect more community college opportunities in associate's degrees for dental therapists in the future.

Questions? Contact us on Facebook @communitycollegereview.

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