Salon.com article calls dentistry a luxury

January 10, 2013

An article today on Salon.com highlights the push for mid-level dental providers in areas of the United States that face a shortage of dentists who serve low income Americans, assessing the situation thus: “Despite its basic importance to health, dentistry has become a luxury item.” The article cites federal government figures that say 49 million Americans live in areas with an official dental shortage and as many as 130 million have no dental insurance.

An article today on Salon.com highlights the push for mid-level dental providers in areas of the United States that face a shortage of dentists who serve low income Americans, assessing the situation thus: “Despite its basic importance to health, dentistry has become a luxury item.”

The article cites federal government figures that say 49 million Americans live in areas with an official dental shortage and as many as 130 million have no dental insurance.

“The existing dental system is uniquely ill-structured to provide a broad safety net,” surmises author June Thomas.

Thomas highlights the call for mid-level dental providers to fill the gap, similar to programs in Alaska and Minnesota. In 2005, Alaska became the first state to try out the new dental care model, when therapists began treating native populations. In 2009, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty signed into law the Dental Therapist Legislation, which provides two levels of providers. A dental therapist requires a bachelor's degree, and an advanced dental therapist requires a master's degree. Many advanced dental therapists may work in community settings under general supervision of a licensed dentist.

“At least 54 countries, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, have expanded their workforces with these so-called dental therapists, with splendid results,” Thomas writes.

For years, organized dentistry has opposed the use of mid-level dental providers to address dental shortages, citing concerns about creating a two-level system of care. The ADA continues to argue  that that dental therapists lack the training and education needed to perform dental procedures and identify health problems among patients.

Dental professionals remain sharply divided on the issue. Use our comments section below to sound off on this important issue.