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Dental Therapists Could Fill Dental-Health ‘Gap’ in AZ

Credit: iStock

By Alex Gonzalez, Public News Service

Since last month, dental therapists can apply for licenses to practice in Arizona, and some believe they’ll play a critical role in a state full of dental health disparities.

Arizona has large rural areas, and most dentists are concentrated in the Phoenix metropolitan area and Tucson.

Deborah Kappes, advocacy chair for the Arizona Dental Hygienists Association, said as you head north, the number of providers diminishes, which is a real concern, especially for tribal communities.

She explained dental therapists “work under the supervision and collaborative practice of a licensed dentist,” meaning they can fill cavities and perform uncomplicated oral care.

“The way our law is structured, dental therapists are restricted to practicing in, like, community health centers,” Kappes explained. “Where they are located, of course, are more in those underserved areas, or at least, serving the communities that have Health Professional Shortage Areas.”

Kappes pointed out Arizona has a total of 245 Dental Health Professional Shortage Areas, despite former Gov. Doug Ducey having signed a bill in 2018 creating the regulatory structure to allow dental therapists to practice in the state.

Kappes noted there are many ways to tackle the dental health disparities in Arizona, but argued having a basic provider, like a dental therapist, who is able to offer services at a lower cost, should help the system become more efficient overall.

She stressed as demand grows in the state, the biggest challenge will be trying to meet that demand by relying solely on the “very small pool of individuals,” currently practicing in other states.

“We don’t have any dental therapy programs in the state,” Kappes acknowledged. “I think one of the biggest barriers in Arizona will be getting dental therapy education programs up and running, and that is what I think our biggest problem is right now.”

Kappes emphasized until the state develops programs to train more of these providers, there will still be a shortage of care. She added there are various pathways for dental therapists to receive licenses and said the universal licensing recognition pathway in Arizona has helped streamline the process.

This article originally appeared in Public News Service and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.