Fearmongering is behind opposition to dental therapists

By March 23, 2018News

Deb Kappes, RDH, MPH
Vice President
Arizona Dental Hygienists Association

I have been part of the oral healthcare community for over 40 years as a private practitioner and dental-hygiene educator. I can speak firsthand to the importance of providing safe, quality dental care to all Arizonans and especially our children.

As safety is paramount, so is access to treatment.

Today, 4.6 million Arizonans live in a federally designated Dental Health Professional Shortage Area, which is usually defined as having fewer than 1 dentist per 5000 people. This crisis hits kids especially hard because dental pain is one of the top causes of school absences. It affects confidence, nutrition and ability to concentrate.

A proposal being heard in the House Health Committee this week would address this crisis by authorizing the use of midlevel dental providers, known as dental therapists, who can expand opportunities to effectively serve patients and increase dentists’ revenue.

Dental therapists have been operating globally since the 1920s, in Alaska since 2004 and in Minnesota since 2011. In that time, the record is clear that dental therapists are trained as well as dentists for the limited procedures allowed within their scope.

Dental therapists receive comprehensive and rigorous training and take the same tests as dentists for those limited procedures that they are permitted to do. Dental-therapy-training programs in Arizona would be required to meet education standards set by the same organization that sets standards for dental schools.

To claim that dental therapists aren’t adequately trained to practice safely and effectively would mean that dentists and dental hygienists aren’t welltrained, either. The group trying to stop dental therapists used the same warnings and fearmongering in efforts to stop dental therapy in those states then as they are using now in Arizona.

In fact, the American Dental Association sued in Alaska to prevent sovereign Tribal Nations there from using dental therapists at all. They lost that fight, and today 45,000 Native Alaskans have access to care and are seeing demonstrable improvements in their oral healthcare as a result.

The fact is, in Alaska and Minnesota and in every state where dental therapists practice, there have been zero malpractice judgments against a dental therapist. If safety were truly an issue, the record would show those risks by now.

In my many years as a practitioner and educator, I’ve seen fights like these before. Organized dentistry once tried to stop hygienists from becoming licensed practitioners. Back then, legislators were warned of dire outcomes at the hands of “lesser trained” professionals.

Arizona’s elected leaders had the wisdom to vote according to the evidence then and none of those warnings have come to pass. Today, dental hygienists are a safe, trusted and vital member of the dental team.

The evidence is clear: Dental therapy is safe and dental therapists are welltrained. Legislators should question the motives of anyone who tries to scare them into believing otherwise.

Deb Kappes is a dental hygienist and vice president of the Arizona Dental Hygienists Association. Contact her at dkappes.azdha@gmail.com.

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Deb Kappes, Guest columnist