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APHA Oral Health Section supports dental therapists in Minnesota.

Thanks in part to an advocacy campaign launched by APHA's Oral Health Section, Minnesota recently legalized the training of mid-level providers, commonly called dental therapists.

With a goal of improving access, dental therapists provide routine dental care, such as fillings, simple extractions and preventive services, to low-income, uninsured and under-served patients who can't afford the fees charged by private dentists or who live in areas that have no dentists.

Signed into law May 16, the new legislation outlines strict education, supervision and practice requirements for dental therapists, who will be licensed to practice in Minnesota no sooner than 2011.

In April, the Oral Health Section sent letters to about 30 members of the Minnesota State Legislature in support of a two-year, community college-based training program to be taught by dentists. The letters referred to a 2006 APHA policy supporting Alaska's successful dental health aide therapists and other innovative oral health programs for underserved populations. Among other advocacy efforts, Oral Health Section Chair Scott Presson, DDS, MPH, penned a letter to the editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune supporting dental therapists, and Oral Health Section Policy Chair Amos Deinard, MD, MPH, met with the Minnesota legislature's speaker of the house to discuss the need for dental therapists.

Dental therapists bridge important gaps in oral health care, public health advocates say. For example, few dentists accept patients enrolled in public insurance programs such as Medicaid. Additionally, dental therapists can provide care to people living in remote areas.

Presson called Minnesota's new law a first step in expanding access to care for under-served populations, but echoed the Section's stance that the approach adopted by the Minnesota State Legislature is overly cautious. For example, the new law calls for a four-year baccalaureate program to train dental therapists and establishes a two-year master's program for advanced dental therapists, among other requirements and restrictions.

"It's a step, and some of the details have yet to be worked out," Presson told The Nation's Health. "It will take a while to get the training program up and running and it will be an evolving process. But it is a big step for one state to take and we hope other states will take a look at it as a way to address the access issue, particularly among the under-served."

The Oral Health Section had advocated for a two-year training program modeled after a dental therapist program that has been operating successfully in New Zealand for more than 75 years. A similar program, operated by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium since 2000 and modeled after New Zealand's program, brings year-round oral health services to Alaska Natives living in remote areas. According to the World Health Organization, dental health aides and therapists now work in 42 countries.

The timing of the Section's letter-writing campaign was "crucial," said Section member Myron Allukian Jr., DDS, MPH, author of APHA's policy in support of Alaska's dental health aide therapists.

"It gave the bill credibility," Allukian told The Nation's Health. "It might have been the backbreaker."

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Title Annotation:The SECTIONS: News about APHA's Sections, SPIGs, Student Assembly, Forums & Caucuses
Author:Johnson, Teddi Deineley
Publication:The Nation's Health
Date:Sep 1, 2009
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