MPCA’s Misty Davis Pens Op-Ed for Detroit News Publication

Dental therapists broaden access to care l by Misty Davis

If you’ve ever had a toothache, you know how hard it can be to eat, sleep, work or go to school until you’ve received dental care.

For many Michiganians, dental care is inaccessible, as 1.5 million residents live in areas with a shortage of dentists. Even in areas that have enough dentists, patients may struggle to find one who accepts their insurance.

Due to intense competition for dental staff, which has been magnified by the exodus of providers that persists in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, our dental clinics are overwhelmed and understaffed. Many clinics report months-long wait lists for appointments and have patients driving hours to access oral health care.

Now the good news: Michigan has authorized a new type of dental provider, the dental therapist.

While this profession may be unfamiliar to many, it has the potential to play a significant role in reducing barriers to oral health care for those who need it the most.

Dental therapists are licensed oral health professionals who work under the supervision of dentists to provide commonly needed care like exams, cleanings, sealants and fillings. They can work remotely, bringing care directly to people where they are, whether that’s in schools, hospitals, nursing homes or rural communities.

The next step to getting dental therapists into Michigan’s community health centers and dental offices is to implement education programs. Several colleges and universities in our state are excited about developing education programs. But with their limited budgets already stretched by inflation, they could use some support with start-up costs.

Costs involved with launching a dental therapy program may include structural changes to on- campus clinics, establishing partnerships with community health centers and expanding their capacity to precept students, costs associated with accreditation, and supporting the establishment of program coordinators, directors and educators.

Meanwhile, a new federal report has concluded that dental therapy provides “clear benefits” to communities, and is calling on Congress and the Biden administration to implement policies that will help grow dental therapy in Michigan and nationwide.

The report found that adding dental therapists to dental teams resulted in more people getting care and reduced wait and travel times for appointments, and resulted in a workforce more representative of the community it serves. It recommends the federal government support education programs for dental therapists both by dedicating funding specifically to them and by making dental therapy education programs eligible for existing oral health workforce programs. The report also encourages federal policymakers to support dental therapists through scholarships and loan repayment programs.

By implementing these recommendations, federal policymakers could help states like Michigan grow their oral health workforces, creating both better access to care for patients and well-paying jobs for new providers within underserved communities.

Another opportunity in front of Congress to support Michigan’s oral health workforce pipeline are the spending bills before the House and Senate that would remove the long-standing prohibition on a dental workforce program that was written into the Affordable Care Act.

This program would award 15 grants of at least $4 million to support the development of new provider types such as dental therapists. Since the program was passed, special interest groups have lobbied to block the funding, effectively preventing it from reaching colleges and universities.

Michigan is one of 11 states with dental therapy legislation but no dental therapy education programs. Removing this funding block would allow federal dollars to flow into colleges and universities interested in developing dental therapy programs in Michigan and beyond, and full implementation of the profession could finally be realized in dental therapy states.

–Misty Davis, a registered dental hygienist, is the oral health program manager at the Michigan Primary Care Association (MPCA).