Guest Post: Access to Quality Dental Care Can Be Improved by Supporting Dental Therapy

A child gets her teeth cleaned during the "Give Kids a Smile" day at the Valley Community Health Centers Dental Clinic earlier this month in Grand Forks. Grand Forks Herald photo by Sarah Kolberg

This guest post was submitted by Dr. Joanne Luger, a Bismarck-based dentist, and Emily Mallory, a Dental Hygienist in Grand Forks and President of the North Dakota Dental Hygienists’ Association.

Did you know that more than 1 in 4 North Dakota 3rd graders have untreated tooth decay – and that nearly 97,000 North Dakotans live in areas with a shortage of dentists? What’s worse, did you know that among nursing home residents in the state with teeth, 1/3 need early or urgent care and that 59 percent of all Native American adults have gum disease?

HB1426 would authorize a dentist to hire a dental therapist in settings that focus on serving children, low-income families, Native Americans, seniors and other underserved or at-risk groups in the state.

These statistics clearly illustrate why additional efforts are needed to help more people gain access to quality dental care. As a practicing dentist in the state and as the President of the North Dakota Dental Hygienists’ Association, we support legislation that improves access by allowing enterprising dentists to hire a midlevel provider to their oral health care team – the dental therapist.

This profession has been in existence for nearly 100 years, in almost 50 countries worldwide. Dental therapy is time tested and can help us serve more of our underserved populations in the state with quality dental care. Similar to physician assistants, a dental therapist is trained to offer routine and commonly needed preventive and restorative services, such as filling cavities. At one Minnesota university, the dental therapists train side-by-side with dentists and take the exact same tests.

According to the bill being considered by North Dakota House, HB1426 would authorize a dentist to hire a dental therapist in settings that focus on serving children, low-income families, Native Americans, seniors and other underserved or at-risk groups in the state. This bill would also ensure the safe practice of dental therapists by requiring a collaborative agreement with the hiring dentist to determine the dental therapist’s scope of practice. This ensures that the treatment is up to expected standards and benefits the patient in a safe manner.

There is no ONE strategy for solving our state’s dental care access problem. But it’s clear that allowing practices to expand their teams with dental therapists can help. This bill doesn’t require a dentist to hire one, it doesn’t cost the state any money and the dental therapist would work in limited practice settings in order to have the greatest impact among those who need this help the most.

We urge legislators to vote Yes on House Bill 1426 – and support improving access to quality dental care in North Dakota.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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