The concept of dental therapists has once again stolen the national spotlight in terms of health care reform. This week, The New York Times published an opinion piece by Dr. Louis Sullivan, former secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, stating the need for dental therapists to solve the national barrier to dental care problem. Dr. Sullivan claims that “little is being done” both by the government and the dental profession to prepare for the outcomes of the Affordable Care Act. He admits the government “can and should train more dentists,” but this process would be too lengthy and dental therapists would be an alternative to care.
Though truth lies in Dr. Sullivan’s comments regarding barriers to care, it is important to note the ADA stance still remains that only a dentist should perform irreversible procedures. Just yesterday, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation issued a report reviewing the practice and history of dental therapists in 54 countries. As noted in the report, a typical dental therapist has a mere two year training after high school prior to performing procedures dental students spent four years of post-graduate education perfecting.
Following the release of this report, the American Dental Association offered observations and a strong stance against the lack of evidence in this report. The ADA mentions their own goals in regards to relieving barriers to care do match up with those of the Kellogg foundation, but this one solution “appears to be a 460-page advocacy document intended to support a predetermined conclusion.” The most notable critique by the ADA is the lack of documentation provided by over half of the countries said to utilize dental therapists and the absence of consistency among dental therapist systems worldwide.
Contrary to Dr. Sullivan’s claims, the ADA has devoted millions of dollars to develop curriculum for Community Dental Health Coordinators to work in underserved areas in order to provide education and preventative services to these populations (source). Underserved populations contain some of the most medically complex patients that demand the highest trained practitioners with the most training. As a student, the value of my education is on the line. Though I’m fortunate enough to attend school in Texas, some of my colleagues spend over $200,000 in tuition alone (excluding 4 or 5 years of undergrad) to obtain a high level of education known to be effective since well before the days of G.V. Black. To have the government devalue the time, money and effort spent to obtain a Doctorate of Dental Surgery (or Dental Medicine) is to deprive the public of the best oral health care possible.
~Katie Sowa, Houston ’15, electronic editor