Midlevel dental providers, or dental therapists, are analogous to physician assistants in the medical profession. Their work is directly supervised by a dentist, but they are licensed to perform services on their own. Most of these services are routine, preventive type of care, such as cleaning teeth, filling cavities and doing other minor restorations.
Although relatively new to the United States, midlevel dental providers have practiced in dozens of countries for years, including Australia, Canada, England, New Zealand and the Netherlands. There is a substantial amount of evidence suggesting that there is no discernible difference in the quality of care provided by a dental therapist compared to that provided by dentists.
Michigan could use this new classification of dental providers to mitigate the impact of two problems standing in the way of widespread access to dental care. One is the area-, facility- and population-based shortages identified by federal agencies that exist in the current dental service market. These shortages particularly harm low-income Michiganders and those living in less-populated areas. Seventy-five percent of dental school deans agree that midlevel dental practitioners would be an effective tool to meet these needs.
The second problem is the looming dentist shortage. About half of Michigan’s current dentists are set to retire in the next 10-15 years, and Michigan’s two dental schools are not on pace to produce enough dentists to replace them. This will lead to an inadequate supply of dentists, which will lead to more shortages. With an increase in shortages will come an increase in prices, and this will make delivering affordable dental services to currently underserved populations even more difficult. Dental therapists could play an important role in minimizing the impact of a large number of dentists leaving the practice for retirement.
Oral health is increasingly recognized as an important component of overall general well-being. As such, it is crucial that Michigan maintain policies that make dental services safe, but also accessible and affordable. The evidence suggests that licensing new dental therapists will help the state meet all three of these goals for its residents and help contribute to a healthier Michigan.