Research supports dental therapists' quality of care

Midlevel dental providers who are trained to provide fillings do so competently and safely, according to a new study in the Journal of Dental Research (May 20, 2013).

Researchers from the University of Michigan reviewed the findings of 23 separate studies conducted in six industrialized countries during the past 60 years that assessed the clinical competence of nondentists performing a limited set of "irreversible" procedures, such as simple fillings and extractions.

Of these reports, all but two concluded that dental therapists perform at an acceptable level. "Every study that directly compared the work of dental therapists with that of dentists found that they performed at least as well," the study authors wrote.

Regardless of whether dental therapists would be the most effective intervention for improving access to oral healthcare in the U.S., "the evidence clearly suggests dental therapists are clinically competent to safely perform the limited set of procedures that falls within their scope of practice."

The report comes at a time when more states are debating the merits of adding dental therapists to their workforces to improve access to dental care for low-income and geographically remote populations. Dental therapists currently are only allowed to practice in two states, Alaska and Minnesota, although legislation promoting the concept has been introduced in a dozen others.

The researchers said they are not necessarily advocating the introduction of dental therapists. However, they do maintain that as the debate over their merits continues to intensify, clinical competence should not be a point of contention.

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