Analysis

Arizona Advocates Push for Dental Therapists

Coalition presents midlevel providers as one solution to the state’s massive dental care shortages

Dental therapists

Dental therapists for Apple Tree Dental set up their mobile clinic at Options, Inc. in Big Lake, Minn., on April 13, 2017.

© The Pew Charitable Trusts

 

More than 2 million Arizonans struggle to access the dental care they need to lead healthy, productive lives. Now Dental Care for Arizona is advocating that the state Legislature be allowed to consider giving dental providers the ability to address the significant need for care in their communities.

This coalition, of which The Pew Charitable Trusts is a member, has submitted a “sunrise application” to initiate legislation to authorize the use of dental therapists. These midlevel professionals are akin to a physician assistant on the medical team and are able to provide preventive and routine restorative care such as filling cavities.  Dental therapists can deliver care to more patients and provide treatment to underserved, at-risk populations, while also allowing dentists to focus their time and skills on the most complex and revenue-generating procedures.

Arizona’s sunrise application will go before the Health Committee of Reference in late 2017. This body, composed of subsets of the House and Senate Health Committees, will hear testimony and make a recommendation on whether legislation to create scope of practice and licensure for dental therapy should be considered by the full Arizona Legislature. This 10-member committee will have a significant say in whether the other 80 members of the state House and Senate will be able to consider and debate this proposal.

Arizona has a clear need for increased access to dental care. Residents living in rural areas are at higher risk for poor oral health and have more unmet needs than their urban counterparts. Every one of Arizona’s 15 counties has at least some portion designated by the Health Resources and Services Administration as a dental professional shortage area.

Research has consistently confirmed that dental therapists provide high-quality, cost-effective, routine dental care while also improving access to treatment in areas where dentists are scarce. More than 1,000 studies from around the world have supported dental therapist’s quality and efficiency of care. In the U.S., dental therapists have been licensed in Maine, Vermont, and Minnesota, and practice on tribal lands in Oregon, Washington state, and Alaska. Dental therapists often work away from the traditional dental office in locations such as rural clinics, nursing homes, and schools while keeping in touch with their supervising dentists through telehealth technology. By working in communities outside normal business hours, therapists can extend access to people across Arizona who face barriers getting to a traditional dental office.

This proposal is good for Arizona patients who can gain greater access to dental care, but also good for dentists who can expand their own practices at lower costs while retaining high quality.

John Grant directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ dental campaign, and Kristen Mizzi Angelone is an associate manager.

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