Dental Therapists Could Help Expand Care

The findings indicate that the dental health aide therapist program in Alaska can help expand the reach of dentists

November 4, 2010  – Dental therapists with two years of intensive training provide safe, competent, appropriate dental care, according to an independent evaluation of a program in Alaska designed to expand access to dental care.

The two-year intensive evaluation, released on Tuesday is the first independent evaluation of its scale to assess care provided by dental therapists practicing in the United States. It confirms what numerous prior studies of dental therapists practicing in other countries have already shown: that dental therapists provide safe care for underserved populations.

Severe shortages of dentists disproportionately affecting low-income communities and communities of color and lack of affordable dental care are putting sorely needed dental services out of reach for nearly 50 million Americans, particularly those in rural and underserved areas. Across the country, states are grappling with how to improve access to dental care, and many are investigating how to use alternative dental providers, including dental therapists, as a way to expand the reach of dentists.

In Alaska, dental therapists have been providing preventive and basic dental care to families in remote Alaska Native villages since 2006. The program evaluation, which was conducted by RTI International of Research Triangle Park, NC, and funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Rasmuson Foundation and the Bethel Community Services Foundation, found that dental therapists in Alaska are clearly providing safe dental services.

The evaluation assessed the work of dental therapists in five communities, as well as the experience of hundreds of patients and how dental therapists performed on hundreds of procedures. They were directly observed performing sealant placement, composite and amalgam preparations, stainless steel crown placement, and oral health instruction. The evaluation relied on examination standards used for assessing clinical competency for board certification of U.S. dental school graduates.

Key findings of the evaluation indicate:

  • Dental therapists are technically competent to perform the procedures within their scope of work and are doing so safely and appropriately,
  • They are consistently working under the general supervision of dentists,
  • They are successfully treating cavities and helping to relieve pain for people who often had to wait months or travel hours to seek treatment,
  • Patients were very satisfied with the care they received


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