If you need a filling or you’ve got toothache in some parts of America, you can see a dental therapist, but how you would feel about entrusting your teeth to somebody who doesn’t have the same level of training as a dentist?
In parts of the US, including Alaska and Minnesota, dental therapists are helping to plug the gaps and reduce waiting times by carrying out basic dental procedures, such as filling cavities and extracting teeth.
Christy Jo Fogarty, one of 60 dental therapists working in Minnesota, said that therapists are not a “silver bullet”, but they can make a major difference, especially in areas where there is a shortage of dentists. Before training as a dental therapist, Christy Jo worked as a dental hygienist for 13 years. She now has the skills to fit fillings and temporary crowns and to remove teeth. She works in a variety of settings, including schools and community centres.
Massachusetts is one of many states currently considering voting in favour of allowing therapists to operate in the state. For a long time, dentists have been opposed to the idea, but recently, a group, which speaks for dentists in the state, has indicated a change of heart. There are concerns about the safety of treatment provided by practitioners with limited experience, and supervised treatment would be preferable; however, there are signs that times are changing.
According to figures, there were more than 36,000 dental visits to the ER in Massachusetts in 2014. The vast majority of these could have been prevented. The state has the highest number of dentists to residents ratio in the US, yet thousands of people are suffering from preventable dental disease.
Maura Sullivan, from The Arc of Massachusetts, a group that supports people with disabilities, backs the introduction of dental therapists, saying that it took her two years to find a dentist who would provide preventative dental care for her two autistic sons.