Dental therapy programs will increase access to oral health care, experts say

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Capital News Service

LANSING — Michigan will soon implement dental therapy programs to decrease disparities in access to oral health care.

According to Misty Davis, an oral health program specialist for the Michigan Primary Care Association, 92% of counties aren’t meeting their communities’ dental needs, but dental therapists will address thatshortfall by treating low-income patients.

Davis says they are “highly skilled licensed mid-level dental providers providing preventive and basic restorative care in underserved areas. 

“They’re in-between a dentist and a hygienist, kind of like a physician’s assistant in the medical world, so they can provide most of the services that a dental hygienist can, but also a limited amount of restorative fillings,” Davis said. 

“They’re geared towards children and trying to address the needs that children are not getting, but they can also do services on adults,” she said.

Kristen Mizzi, the senior manager of the dental campaign for the Pew Charitable Trusts, says dental therapy programs are designed to provide care to patients without access to dentists. Pew Charitable Trusts is a nonprofit organization that addresses challenges through evidence-based public policy improvements. 

“There’s actually a law in Michigan that dental therapists have to work in areas of need. That could be a dental shortage area in northern rural Michigan, a community health center or a veterans home, just places where people don’t have access to regular dental care,” Mizzi said. 

According to Mizzi, there are rules to make sure dental therapists are addressing oral health care disparities. 

“If dental therapists are going to work in a private practice, it’s required that at least half of their patients are on Medicaid,” she said.

According to Davis, the main barriers that keep Michigan residents from receiving proper dental care are financial concerns and transportation problems.

“Dental therapists can accept Medicaid, so that’s opened up a lot of services to people who have Medicaid but don’t have access to dental care,” Davis said. 

Additionally, dental therapists “work in more of a public health setting in dental health professional shortage areas,” Davis said. “Mostly they’ll be working in community health centers, school-based health centers, tribal clinics, hospitals and prisons.”

Many public health settings that will employ dental therapists are in the areas without access to oral health care, according to Davis. “By bringing care to communities that lack dental professionals, they’re going to remove barriers around transportation and physical ability to go to offices.”

Although the state law to allow dental therapists passed in 2018, Davis says licensing rules are in “the final stages of approval” so they aren’t allowed to provide care yet.

According to Davis, the focus is on developing educational programs. 

“Right now we’re talking with other states that have dental therapy programs and getting models together for education programs,” she said. 

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