With 50 million Americans living in poor or rural areas where there are no dentists to go to — and that number expected to rise by more than 5 million if the Affordable Care Act stands — states and the federal government should be training dental therapists to help solve the problem, argues Louis W. Sullivan, a physician and former secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, in an op-ed piece in The New York Times.
"We have two years to prepare before millions of children will be entitled to access to dental care," he writes of the impending eligibility expansion under the ACA. "Access means more than having an insurance card; it means having professionals available to provide care. Public officials should foster the creation of these mid-level providers — and dentists should embrace the opportunity to broaden the profession so they can expand services to those in need."
Dental therapists provide preventive care and "routine procedures like sealants, fillings and simple extractions outside the confines of a traditional dentist's office," Sullivan writes. While they are "common worldwide," only Alaska and Minnesota allows them to practice. Legislation is pending in five other states. Generally, dentists have been opposed to such changes.
Sullivan points to Alaska as a model example for how these therapists can fill gaps in places like remote villages "only accessible by plane, snowmobile or dogsled, where high school seniors once graduated with full sets of dentures." In 2003, the state sent students to New Zealand to be trained as therapists. Now, therapists serve 35,000 Alaskans. They "travel to small clinics and schools, often carrying their equipment with them. They consult with a supervising dentist from the region but do most procedures themselves. Many were raised in the communities in which they now work, so they understand the culture," Sullivan writes.
Sullivan points out dental disease is the No. 1 chronic childhood disease in the country, responsible for more children needing treatment than asthma. In 2009, more than 830,000 visits to the emergency room were due to preventable dental problems across the nation, he points out. But dentists are in short supply and will be even harder to see if the ACA is upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. "In a nation obsessed with high-tech medicine, people are not getting preventive care for something as simple as tooth decay," he writes. (Read more)