What Is a Dental Therapist?

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When you have your teeth cleaned, you normally see a dental hygienist first. But for patients who are uninsured or need extra support, education and therapeutic care, seeing an oral care therapist as part of your regular dental care may also be an option.

What Is a Dental Therapist?

Dental therapy is a relatively new field. According to the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry, a dental therapist is a licensed oral care professional who works in conjunction with a dental care team, providing clinical and therapeutic care. These oral care professionals typically work with uninsured, low-income and underserved populations to help them get necessary dental care. They perform many of the same tasks as dental hygienists, such as cleaning teeth and taking X-rays. These oral care professionals may also provide fillings, replace crowns and perform extractions of baby teeth, according to the National Careers Service.

Minnesota, one of the first states to recognize the field, licenses two types of therapists: Dental Therapists (DT) and Advanced Dental Therapists (ADT), reports the Registered Dental Hygienist Magazine. An ADT must earn a master's degree and become a licensed practicing dental hygienist. A DT, on the other hand, isn't a licensed dental hygienist. Both an ADT and DT can administer nitrous oxide and anesthesia, but ADTs are more likely able to perform extractions, depending on state license requirements.

Where Do Dental Therapists Practice?

In the past decade, there has been an increasing shortage of dentists in the United States, and the shortage is expected to continue in coming decades. Rural areas in the U.S. are most affected, according to Canadian Medical Association Journal. Dental therapists fill a need by practicing in these underserved areas to help offset the shortfall, as The Pew Charitable Trusts describes. They also practice in areas like veteran's hospitals, low-income clinics and help homebound patients, says the National Maternal and Child Oral Health Center.

Currently, most states don't recognize dental therapists, though some are considering how these professionals can bridge the gap in care. Minnesota, Maine, and tribal areas of Alaska have already passed regulations, allowing therapists to practice in these states. And as of 2015, about 12 states are seeking legislation to include these oral care professionals as a part of dental care teams, per Community Catalyst.

Types of DT Supervision

In order to perform certain advanced procedures, such as extractions, most therapists must be supervised––to some degree––by a licensed dentist. According to the National Maternal and Child Oral Health Center, a dental therapist in Minnesota can be personally, directly, indirectly or generally supervised. Personal supervision means a therapist can only support a dentist during a procedure or operation. With direct supervision, a dentist must be in the office, give a diagnosis and provide a treatment plan, while indirect supervised care allows a therapist to perform a procedure if a licensed dentist is in the office and authorizes it. General supervision gives a wider scope of responsibility to a dental therapist. A licensed dentist must have prior knowledge of work performed but doesn't need to be present for all procedures.

Almost 20 percent of Americans live in rural areas, according to the United States Census Bureau. If that's you, it might be difficult to find dental care nearby — but a dental therapist can help bridge that gap.

Remember, it's always best to review preventive oral care with your dental team to help keep cavities and poor oral health at bay. A toothbrush and tongue cleaner like Colgate® 360º® Total® Advanced Floss-Tip Bristles Toothbrush can decrease bacteria and help keep your teeth and mouth healthy. Take time to focus on good oral care and you'll reap the benefits!

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