UM dental school hopes to train dental therapists

By Liz Riggs
Minneapolis, Minnesota (AP) 2-09

Rural and poor populations could see improved access to dental care under a plan to begin training dental therapists at the University of Minnesota.

The therapists – dentistry’s equivalent of a physician’s assistant – would be licensed to take on some of the responsibilities that have been reserved for dentists. Significant portions of the training would be done alongside students in the university’s doctor of dental surgery program.

“One of our mantras is, if you can learn together, you can work together,” said Dr. Patrick Lloyd, dean of the university’s School of Dentistry.

Under the university’s proposal, dental therapists could practice preventive care, such as applying sealants and fluoride, without a dentist on site. More complex procedures, such as pulling or drilling teeth, could be done by a therapist only under a dentist’s supervision. And certain procedures would still be done only by dentists.

Midlevel dental practitioner positions exist in dozens of other countries but are rare in the United States. Lloyd said at least a dozen U.S. states are considering some form of them.

Alaska has a dental therapist program as a result of a partnership between the University of Washington and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, but admission is limited to tribal affiliates.

 

Fred Peterson, a spokesman for the American Dental Association, said he believed Alaska was the only state where dental therapists are practicing.

Rep. Kim Norton, a Democrat from Rochester, planned to introduce a bill that would allow dental therapists to practice in Minnesota and would define the level of supervision they require. Norton’s bill would require half of a therapist’s workload to be dedicated to underserved populations.

The bill has the backing of the Minnesota Dental Association, which includes more than 80 percent of the state’s dentists. In the past, the MDA rejected a separate bill that had less of a supervisory role for dentists.

Dick Diercks, the group’s executive director, said it was “possible” the creation of a new class of dental practitioner would help underserved areas.

“It does make sense to go slow and evaluate the effectiveness of a new position,” Diercks said.

Don Hodge, 53, of Janesville, liked the idea of a midlevel dental practitioner and said he thought it would give rural Minnesotans more options. He said any trip to the dentist from his part of Waseca County is a haul.

“The closest dentist is 20 miles away. Heck, he’s busy,” Hodge said. When he goes to the dentist, Hodge said the office is always packed.

Hodge said he would be a willing patient, though he said he had reservations about allowing his 10-year-old daughter to be treated by a therapist – even under a dentist’s supervision.

If Norton’s legislation passes and the university adopts the programs, students could begin study as early as this fall, with the first class graduating in 2011.

 

 

 

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