Dental Therapists Put on Test

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By Dr. Joseph D. Lim

DENTAL therapists are oral health providers almost similar to nurses.

And the first class of dental therapists and advanced dental therapists in Minnesota took their licensure examinations last April 2-3. Although Minnesota is among the top five states in United States with high oral health care coverage, regular dental care reportedly doesn’t cover about 350,000 low-income people while 80 percent of tooth decay is found in 25 percent of children, many of them in poor families. Minnesota’s two-tiered Dental Therapist Legislation of 2009 requires dental therapists to have a bachelor’s degree; they are licensed to practice tooth extraction and fill cavities under the supervision of dentists.

Advanced dental therapists are licensed to practice with an off-site dentist supervisor provided they have a master’s degree and has completed 2,000 clinical hours. While similar schemes are in place in other countries, Minnesota’s – and a similar program in Alaska – is unique in the United States. A dental therapist is essentially a licensed dental auxiliary who specializes in treating children’s teeth and oral hygiene. Local dental regulations determine the duties therapists are able to perform. Typically, therapists under the prescription of a dentist are licensed to examine children’s teeth, administer restricted techniques of local anesthesia, take x-rays, provide sealants, scaling and cleaning in children.

Alaska and Minnesota allow dental therapists to practice basic dental procedures under the supervision of a dentist.
The difference in the two states is that Alaskan dental therapists are taught in Washington State and can only practice on tribal rural areas. An October 2010 evaluation of the Alaska dental therapist program found that they provide safe, effective and competent care.

In the United Kingdom, a dental therapist working from a prescribed treatment plan can treat children and adults, with direct restorations, gum and oral hygiene treatment and extraction of teeth. They can also place pre-formed stainless steel crowns on teeth. They can apply medications and administer local anesthetic. Dental therapists can work independently and without the supervision of a dentist. Training is usually by dual diploma in dental hygiene and dental therapy but a few dental schools offer full degree training in combined hygiene/therapy.

In Canada, dental therapists may practice basic dental surgical procedures only in certain communities and only under the supervision of a dentist. In Australia and New Zealand, therapists mainly work for state governments (public clinics) and school dental programs, treating children’s teeth. But they cannot restore adult teeth in children above grade 10 and cannot restore non-vital teeth.
Dr. Joseph D. Lim is the Dean of the College of Dentistry, National University, President/CEO of Dr. Smile Dental Care & Laser Center and honorary fellow of the Asian Oral Implant Academy and the Japan College of Oral Implantologists. For questions on dental health, e-mail or text 0917-8591515.

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