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An introduction to dental therapy

Have you ever heard of dental therapy? No, it has nothing to do with a psychologist or psychiatrist examining your teeth.

Dental therapists are highly trained mid-level dental practitioners who focus on preventive and restorative care working under the supervision of a dentist. Think of a nurse practitioner or physicians assistant. The John Locke Foundation recently published a report on this relatively new practitioner and how we can change the laws to allow them to practice here in North Carolina.

Here is more from the report on what a dental therapist does:

Dental therapists’ scope of practice generally includes most of the same competencies maintained by dental hygienists, plus expertise in routine restorative procedures such as drilling and filling cavities, simple extractions, and stainless steel crowns. Dental therapists are also trained in administering local anesthesia and nitrous oxide and can dispense non-narcotic pain relievers and antibiotics. Previously, only dentists were able to drill teeth. Thanks to the additional expertise offered by dental therapists, patients who once were forced to wait for an available dentist can now receive treatment faster and closer to home.

Why would North Carolina want to allow the practice of these dental professionals? Many areas lack the proper supply of dental professionals to serve the nearby population. Dental therapists can help with this problem:

Critical to the effectiveness of dental therapists is a reasonable and limited regulatory environment. Most state dental therapy laws allow them to perform a large portion of their scope of practice under general supervision. That means a supervising dentist is not required on the premises where services are performed. This allows dental therapists to travel outside their home dental offices and treat patients where the need exists. According to the Minnesota Department of Health and Minnesota Board of Dentistry, “General supervision of [advanced dental therapists] has made it economically viable for dental clinics to provide routine dental care in schools, rural communities, Head Start programs, nursing homes, and other community settings. It also makes it possible for a dental clinic to provide services at times when a dentist is not on site.”

What would it take to bring these professionals to North Carolina?

States can introduce dental therapists into their communities by passing legislation to establish, recognize, and regulate dental therapy licenses, typically accomplished by adding a section to a state’s occupations code and requiring the state’s dental board to make corollary changes. In North Carolina, this would involve adding an Article to Chapter 90 (Medicine and Allied Occupations) of General Statutes and authorizing the North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners to oversee licensure.

The John Locke Foundation is hosting an event to begin the discussion on bringing dental therapy to North Carolina tomorrow. You can register here.

Check out the full report here.

Jordan Roberts / Health Policy Analyst

Jordan joined the Locke Foundation in the summer of 2018 as Health Care Policy Analyst. He analyzes state and national health policy issues with an eye toward removing governm...

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