Research suggests dental therapists could provide care to Medicaid-eligible kids at terrific savings

The recent revitalization of the Kentucky Oral Health Coalition was a reminder that our state ranks 49th in dental health, behind only West Virginia. So was the news then Tuesday from the University of Connecticut, where research suggests that adding a new kind of health provider — dental therapists — to clinics known as federally qualified health centers could significantly expand the availability of care for millions of American children. (Pew Center photo)

The white paper from the Pew Children’s Dental Campaign of the Pew Center on the States notes that, “In particular, by including dental therapists as providers in school-based programs operated by FQHCs, the researchers estimated states could provide access to care for 6.7 million Medicaid-eligible children, nationwide.” The analysis also suggests that this significant increase in access could be realized for a cost of approximately $1.8 billion or just one half of 1 percent of combined state and federal 2009 Medicaid spending. To read the full Pew report, go here.

Nationwide, 830,000 emergency room visits in 2009 were due to
preventable dental problems, according to the center, many of those in rural areas.

Most of the children lacking care don’t have insurance, live in areas
without enough dentists or can’t find doctors who accept Medicaid.
Problems accessing dentists could grow in 2014, when 5 million more
children are expected to get dental insurance under the federal
healthcare reform law.

Despite the undisputed need, not everyone is behind the concept. The American Dental Association argues that dental therapists lack the training and education needed to perform irreversible surgical procedures and to identify patients’ other medical problems, writes Anna Gorman in the Los Angeles Times. Therapists would be properly educated and would help close vast gaps in care that can lead to costly emergency room visits for dental problems, said Shelly Gehshan, director of the Children’s Dental Campaign. In 2005, Alaska became the first state to try out the new dental care model, when therapists began treating native populations. Minnesota authorized the new tier of practitioner in 2009, and the first graduates of dental therapy programs began practicing last year. 

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One Reply to “Research suggests dental therapists could provide care to Medicaid-eligible kids at terrific savings”

  1. merci

    How does the removal of many school health optoins from Kentucky schools affect the feasibility of something like this? I assume that since we can't even have school nurses, employing dental therapists is highly unlikely. The argument dentists make here against dental therapists seems to mirror those of physicians against ARNPs in the early days; it's a potentially great idea, just maybe not a feasible for Kentucky with our current priorities.

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