If you’re like me, you probably don’t think a lot about going to the dentist. Even for those of us who do go on a regular basis, it’s sometimes hard to appreciate the importance of a routine checkup. But a growing amount of medical research suggests that oral health is a vital, but often overlooked part of a person’s health. 

Unfortunately, not enough people in Michigan get the dental care that they need to maintain good oral health. This is partially explained by the lack of appreciation for the importance of oral health, but there are other factors at play too, such as access to dental professionals and, of course, the cost of dental care. 

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services estimates that more than 30 percent of adults in Michigan did not see a dentist in 2014. The same is true for about 60 percent of people who have a household income of less than $20,000 or who do not have dental insurance. And according to the federal government, there are more than 200 official dental health professional shortages in Michigan. This is a widespread problem, with at least one shortage in nearly every county.

Failing to see a dentist regularly is a bit like ignoring the check engine light on your car’s dash. You may not notice any immediate concerns or cause for action, so you can safely ignore it, right? Yes, right up until you’ve got a major, costly disaster on your hands. 

Regrettably, that’s been the way a lot of people in Michigan treat their teeth. The Anderson Economic Group recently found that Michiganders made more than 7,000 trips to the emergency room each year for problems resulting from preventable dental issues. Gov. Snyder called this an “inappropriate use of emergency rooms.” And he’s right.

When people wait to use the emergency room to treat the pain and infections caused by preventable dental issues, we all pay the cost. AEG estimated that hospitals were paid about $15 million for the care provided during those 7,000 trips. But the consulting firm also estimated that hospitals actually charged $58 million for their service. Guess how hospitals make up the difference?

Lack of access to dental care might seem like an unsolvable problem, especially since our health care industry is increasingly under the control of government and other monopolistic organizations. But there is one market-based idea that could help bring down the cost of dental care, expand access to services and reduce the inappropriate use of emergency rooms.

The Mackinac Center recently published a report titled “Dental Therapists: A Proposal to Expand Access to Dental Care in Michigan.” The study recommends that the Legislature create a new dental license for a midlevel provider called a dental therapist. As a midlevel provider of care, a dental therapist would have a larger scope of practice than a dental hygienist, but would not be able to do everything a traditional dentist can do. Such a person would be required to graduate from an accredited dental training program and could only work under the supervision of a dentist.

Several other developed countries have successfully used midlevel dental providers for decades. Maine, Minnesota and Vermont have dental therapists as well, and many other states are considering them.

Creating a license for dental therapists won’t defeat all the challenges of providing access to dental care for Michiganders. But it’s a tested and well-studied reform that would inject more competition and flexibility into Michigan’s dental care market.