Dentist and patient looking at an X-ray in an office

What Is a Dental Therapist?

When you visit your local dentist and dental hygienist for regular oral checkups, you get the care you need to ensure your teeth and gums stay healthy. But some people live in areas without a local dental office. Or, some uninsured or low-income people might not seek dental care because of the costs. That's why some states are authorizing dental therapists.

So, what's a dental therapist? And what makes them different from dentists and dental hygienists? We'll clue you in on this particular dental professional, the types of procedures they perform, and if you'd be a candidate to see a dental therapist.

What's a Dental Therapist?

Just as your medical doctor might employ a physician's assistant to take on certain duties, some dentists engage dental therapists to expand their quality oral health care practice.

Licensed oral health care professionals, dental therapists attend accredited schools, taking rigorous classes alongside dentists and dental hygienists. Dental therapists also undergo supervised clinic practicums. Depending upon their education level – achieving a bachelor's degree as a dental therapist (DT) or a master's as an advanced dental therapist (ADT) – they can perform many dental procedures either unsupervised or supervised.

The National Maternal and Child Oral Health Center provides a list of dental therapist responsibilities, including routine dental prevention and restoration care such as:

  • Take X-rays
  • Polish teeth
  • Fill cavities
  • Replace crowns
  • Extract baby teeth
  • Administer local anesthetic
  • Repair dental prosthetics
  • Make mouthguards
  • Provide oral care advice

Where Do Dental Therapists Practice?

Because dental therapists can provide basic dental care, they can work in a dental office or provide homebound care. But they usually practice where they're most needed, such as in the following communities.

Underserved Communities: Nearly 61 million people in the U.S. live in a dental Health Professional Shortage Area (HPSA). If you live in an HPSA, don't have dental insurance, or feel you don't have the money for dental care, you might seek the services of a dental therapist. Among the settings dental therapists practice are:

  • Tribal health clinics
  • Rural health clinics
  • Public or free health clinics
  • Underserved schools
  • Correctional facilities
  • Mobile health units

Community Facilities: If dental care is needed outside of the main dental office, dental therapists can be there. This can include practicing in nursing homes, veteran's hospitals, and school health offices.

The Pew Charitable Trusts notes that dental therapists practice in more than 50 countries and have done so for decades. But because the dental therapist role is a 21st-century profession in the U.S., most states haven't yet licensed the practice of dental therapy. Some states, though, are considering how these dental professionals can bridge the gap in care.

As of 2020, these states allow dental therapists to practice or have passed dental therapy laws or bills:

  • Tribal areas in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho
  • Minnesota
  • Maine
  • Vermont
  • Arizona
  • Michigan
  • Connecticut
  • Idaho
  • Nevada
  • New Mexico

Part of the Dental Team

Dental therapists don't receive the extensive training and clinical experience dentists obtain. But because they can perform certain advanced procedures, some dentists welcome dental therapists into their practice as procedural support.

Of course, some states require licensed dentists to directly supervise dental therapists as they perform certain procedures. Dentists must also diagnose an oral condition and authorize treatment plans – even if dental therapists carry out the treatments.

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.

Remember, it's always best to review preventive oral care with your dental team – your dentist, dental hygienist, and dental therapist – to help keep cavities and poor oral health at bay. And even if you live in an area where there's no dental practice, check with your state to see if they're authorizing or discussing authorizing dental therapists.

This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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