Experts agree that proper dental care is an important part of a person’s overall health, but a chronic shortage of dentists makes some parts of Michigan “dental deserts.”
Studies show that dentists are especially scarce in rural areas and marginalized urban neighborhoods, but many providers are turning to dental therapists to provide coverage where needed.
Dr. Michele Bloxson, dental director for The Wellness Plan Medical Centers, a group of Michigan-based healthcare clinics. She says dental therapists are licensed to perform primary preventive dental care and some basic procedures.
“Just like when you have a medical provider in the medical field, you have a PA,” she said. “A dental therapist is an additional provider in the dental field, to provide services to those patients that are not able to receive care.”
According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, nearly 61 million people in the United States live in dental-shortage areas. For individuals without access to a dentist, dental insurance or money to pay for this type of care, Bloxson said, dental therapists are a good alternative.
Michigan began its dental therapy program in 2021 and is one of about 40 states that certify the providers. The Michigan Dental Association has said a majority of rural dentists are nearing retirement age. Bloxson said people in immigrant, Black or Latino communities are often more comfortable with a caregiver who looks like them.
“If you have a dental therapist to provide some of those adjunct services, it will benefit those areas as well,” she said. “Patients that, when they go to clinics, they want to have someone that represents their ethnicity or someone that speaks their language.”
Bloxson said training programs for dental therapists generally take two years to complete, and a growing number of colleges are adding it to their health-care curriculum. Graduates must pass a Michigan Board of Dentistry examination to receive a license to practice.