Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Dental therapists in Minnesota leading to increased care in rural and underserved areas

Kassie Scott works as a dental therapist in
Minnesota (Times photo by Dave Schwarz)
Minnesota's goal to increase dental care to rural and underserved areas is beginning to pay off, but still lacks enough qualified workers, Stephanie Dickrell reports for the St. Cloud Times. In 2009 the Minnesota Legislature authorized the licensing of dental therapists "to expand access to dental care to more state residents, especially those with low incomes or who live in rural areas where dentists may be rare." Minnesota "has some of the lowest reimbursement rates for pediatric dental care services in the nation. As a result, dentists say they can't afford to treat any or many Medical Assistance patients."

The first class of dental therapists, who "perform routine dental work, including fillings, while the dentist concentrates on more complicated cases," graduated in 2011, Dickrell reports. "A 2016 study by the University of Minnesota found that dental therapists saw up to 90 percent of uninsured patients or patients on public assistance."

Having dental therapists is also leading to shorter waiting times for appointments, Dickrell writes. A study in 2014 by the Minnesota Department of Health, "showed that almost one-third of all patients saw a reduction in wait times to get an appointment, especially in rural areas. Time with a provider increased by 10 minutes."

Using dental therapists is also saving money, Dickrell reports. Sarah Wovcha, executive director of Children's Dental Service, a nonprofit clinic that treats low-income, uninsured and diverse kids and pregnant women, said "while a dentist might make an average of $75 an hour for a filling, a dental therapist would make half that for the same work." Wovcha said that leads to weekly savings of $1,200 and annual savings of $62,400, "or the cost of another full-time dental therapist."

One problem is that Minnesota only has two programs to train dental therapists, producing about 20 graduates per year, Dickrell writes. The health department said there are currently about 70 licensed dental therapists in Minnesota, which accounts for only 1 percent of the state's dental workforce.

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