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However, Rural and poor populations could see improved access to dental care under a plan to begin training dental therapists at the University of Minnesota.
Dental Therapist Program at University of Minnesota
The therapists -- dentistry's equivalent of a physician's assistant -- would be licensed to take on some of the responsibilities that have been reserved for dentists. Significant portions of the training would be done alongside students in the university's doctor of dental surgery program.
"One of our mantras is, if you can learn together, you can work together," said Dr. Patrick Lloyd, dean of the university's School of Dentistry.
Under the university's proposal, dental therapists could practice preventive care, such as applying sealants and fluoride, without a dentist on site. More complex procedures, such as pulling or drilling teeth, could be done by a therapist only under a dentist's supervision. And certain procedures would still be done only by dentists.
Midlevel dental practitioner positions exist in dozens of other countries but are rare in the United States. Lloyd said at least a dozen U.S. states are considering some form of them.
Alaska has a dental therapist program as a result of a partnership between the University of Washington and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, but admission is limited to tribal affiliates.
The surprising fact is that there are fewer dental schools today than there were 20 years ago. Seven dental schools have closed since 1989. And, today, the total number of enrolled dental students is about equal to the number of students in the 1960’s. In the US there is a skewed geographical distribution of dental schools: 14 States have NO dental school.
Recently, when the Alaska determined a need for dental nurses, there was no training program in the United States. So Alaska had to send their dental nursing students 8000 miles to Otago University on the South Island of New Zealand.
US Dental Education is simply not receiving sufficient attention.
For every three dentists who retire, only two new dental students are graduated from US dental schools. It appears we are headed for the same kind of shortage of dentists that exists in some other countries.