The Michigan Legislature has authorized the creation of dental therapists, who will provide preventive and specific restorative services with a focus on those who do not have access to oral healthcare.
“Expanding the dental team to include a dental therapist could improve overall access to oral healthcare for underserved patients while allowing dentists to increase their revenues and modernize and expand their practices,” said Senator Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake), sponsor of the initial bill, SB 541.
“When people cannot get dental care, they often resort to emergency rooms for relief, which costs Michigan taxpayers money. Relying on emergency rooms doesn’t alleviate patients’ underlying problems and places an unfair burden on taxpayers,” said Shirkey.
Access to dental care is limited or nonexistent for millions of Michigan residents, according to Michigan Council for Maternal and Child Health (MCMCH), which notes that:
- More than a third of all Michigan seniors have lost six or more natural teeth due to tooth decay or gum disease
- Half of new mothers in 2014 did not receive a preventive dental visit during their pregnancy, even though gum disease can increase the risk of preterm birth
- Approximately half of the children covered by Medicaid or Healthy Kids Dental did not receive dental services in 2016
- One in four third graders had untreated dental disease
- Dental care provided to children in an operating room visit to address preventable conditions cost $7.9 million in 2011
- Due to workforce and regulatory challenges, seniors, pregnant women, and children from low-income communities often are underserved and have unmet oral healthcare needs
Previously, only dentists were allowed to perform routine procedures like filling cavities. The new law increases the number of trained professionals who would be able to perform these basic procedures under the supervision of a dentist and through a written practice agreement, allowing dentists to focus on more complicated procedures, MCMCH says.
Dental therapists must graduate from an accredited dental therapy education program and complete 500 hours of clinical practice, supervised by a dentist. The legislation’s sponsors and supporters aim to have dental therapists practice in areas of greatest need such as safety net clinics and dental shortage areas.
“Bringing dental therapy to Michigan would not be possible if not for the support of our coalition of partners and state lawmakers who had the vision for improving oral healthcare,” said Becky Domagalski, RDH, president of the Michigan Dental Hygienists’ Association, which supported the legislation.
“The passage of the dental therapy bill in Michigan presents another career opportunity for dental hygienists to expand their services to communities who need them the most,” said Michele Braerman, RDH, president of the American Dental Hygienists’ Association.