Dental Therapists Would Improve Access to Care

Study recommends Michigan create new midlevel providers

Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016

Chantal Lovell
Media Relations Manager

MIDLAND — A report published today jointly by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and the Texas Public Policy Foundation recommends the state create a new category of dental care specialists. These providers, called dental therapists, would be hired and supervised by dentists and would focus on providing preventive and routine dental care to underserved populations in Michigan. Senate Bill 1013, introduced by Sen. Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, would establish these providers in state law.

The report makes the case for a new midlevel dental provider by analyzing statistics about access to dental care in Michigan. For instance, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has identified 212 cases of what it calls a dental “health professional shortage area.” These are geographic areas or groups of people who have too little access to dental care. Of Michigan’s 83 counties, at least 76 have at least one shortage. Dental therapists may make it easier for dentists to provide preventive and routine dental care to these currently underserved areas and people.

And while Michigan has made progress providing access to dental care for low-income families in recent years, 64 percent of children from low-income households still do not get regular dental care. Because dental therapists would provide dentists a less costly option for expanding their practices, they would improve dentists’ ability to better meet the needs of low-income populations. In fact, a 2013 survey of deans of dental schools found that 75 percent thought dental therapists would “improve access to care for the underserved.”

“Preventive dental care is an important tool to fight against rising medical costs,” said Michael Van Beek, director of research at the Mackinac Center and co-author of the study. “The reality though is that not enough people in Michigan get this care and this leads to higher health care costs in the future.”

Another reason why now might be the right time to create midlevel providers is Michigan’s aging dentist population. A 2011 survey of dentists found that 52 percent of them were over the age of 55 and 50 percent said they planned to retire in less than 10 years. Michigan may see a shortage of dentists over the next several years, and dental therapists would ease the challenges created by this reduction in supply.

Midlevel dental providers have been practicing in other countries and states for a long time. New Zealand first used them almost a hundred years ago, and Alaska began using these providers in 2005. Minnesota, Maine and Vermont have passed legislation recently to create these positions and another 12 states are considering doing the same.

“Dental therapists won’t solve all of Michigan’s challenges regarding oral health care, but if used well, they could be an important part of the plan to expand access to the dental care market,” Van Beek added.

Read the full study:

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About the Mackinac Center for Public Policy
The Mackinac Center for Public Policy is a nonpartisan research and educational institute dedicated to improving the quality of life for all Michigan residents by promoting sound solutions to state and local economic policy questions. As a free-market think tank, the Mackinac Center is guided by its belief in free markets, individual liberty, limited government and the rule of law. Founded in 1988, it is headquartered in Midland, Mich. For more information, visit