Michigan this week became the eighth U.S. state to authorize dental therapists in some capacity, and the second to enact a dental therapy law in 2018. At least a dozen other states are considering allowing dental therapists to help increase access to dental care and address workforce shortages in the field.
Similar to physician assistants, dental therapists are midlevel providers who are trained to offer routine and commonly needed preventive and restorative services, such as filling cavities.
S.B. 541, signed into law Dec. 26 by Governor Rick Snyder (R), passed with broad bipartisan support in the Michigan Senate and House. The new law gives Michigan dentists the option of hiring dental therapists to deliver high-quality care to underserved patients, allowing the supervising dentists to focus their time and skills on more complex procedures. It also ensures that dental therapists are highly trained, requiring them to graduate from an accredited program and pass a state-approved clinical exam before being allowed to treat patients.
“This bill will ensure an improvement in overall access to oral health care for underserved patients while allowing dentists the chance to expand their practices and increase revenues,” said Senator Mike Shirkey, the legislation’s Senate sponsor. “Too often, those with limited access to dental care resort to emergency rooms for relief, and Michigan taxpayers have to foot the bill. Creating dental therapists is a solution from both a public health and fiscal perspective.”
Seventy-eight of Michigan’s 83 counties have at least one dental shortage area, meaning there aren’t enough dentists to serve the residents of that county. Such shortages have left millions of people across the country without access to basic and necessary oral care.
In addition to Michigan, seven other states have authorized dental therapists in some capacity: Arizona, Maine, Minnesota, Vermont, and tribal communities in Alaska, Oregon, and Washington.
John Grant is a director and Kristen Mizzi Angelone is a manager with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ dental campaign.