Americans in urban areas think of dental services as a kind of regular maintenance. It's little different than changing the oil in your car and occurs about as often. But that's not true for everyone.
According to the Pew Center on the States, more than 40 million Americans reside in areas with a shortage of dentists. And individuals without dental health access often end up in the emergency room, which is more expensive for everyone.
Advocacy groups and some state legislators think an alternative type of dental provider, often called a dental therapist, can fill the void. Dental therapists don’t receive as much training as a dentist. But they can perform some of the same basic services — such as pulling teeth and filling cavities — under the supervision of a dentist.
In Minnesota and Alaska, the two states that have practicing dental therapists so far, some of the therapists are able to take their work on the road, traveling to rural areas to treat those who have little or no access to dentists — or who have limited dental coverage. The dental therapists charge less than dentists and are able to take all types of insurance, including Medicaid and Medicare.
“The bottom line is that it will cost a state significantly less to hire dental therapists to provide basic restorative care to the underserved,” said Julie Stitzel, manager for the Pew Children’s Dental Campaign.
How are America's dentists responding to this? Not well.
“The No. 1 obstacle has been organized dentistry,” Pew’s Stitzel said.
“What we’re opposed to is the delegation of surgical procedures,” Faiella said. “Everyone deserves the treatment of a dentist and the care of a dentist.”
He says ADA is developing a range of programs to address the gap — pushing prevention measures such as fluoride and dental sealants, emergency room diversion programs in which dentists partner with community health clinics to ensure people needing dental care don’t end up in the emergency department — and an ad campaign to encourage parents to make sure their kids brush twice a day.
An ad campaign. That'll certainly take care of the dental problems of America's rural population. After all, they deserve a dentist not a less personage. And if they can't have a dentist? They're better off having nothing.