Community Catalyst works to improve access to dental care through the Dental Therapist Project with the generous support of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation
Oral health is essential to overall health, yet 83 million Americans lack access to dental care. The two biggest barriers to care are cost and the availability of dental providers.
Community Catalyst and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation are committed to improving the health and well-being of vulnerable children and families and addressing racial and ethnic disparities to ensure every community has access to quality, affordable dental care. The Dental Therapist Project, a joint initiative, focuses on empowering community groups and consumer health advocates to work toward improving access to dental care by expanding the dental team to include a new primary care dental provider, dental therapists. Community Catalyst has partnered with consumer and child health advocates and state and tribal leaders in Kansas, Ohio, New Mexico, Washington and Vermont to explore the feasibility of establishing dental therapist programs to expand access to oral health care. The Dental Therapist Project supports community-led efforts to:
- Raise awareness of the oral health crisis
- Engage consumers in the policy debate regarding unmet oral health needs
- Educate policymakers, dentists, educational institutions, and community members
- Promote innovative workforce solutions to increase access to dental care
Dental therapists are based off the successful model in Alaska, and would be able to deliver care in underserved communities where no one is currently providing care. Dental therapists are professionally trained, mid-level dental providers who can help more people get the care they need through a two-to-three-year training program. They support the work of a dentist and can also work in different locations while under a dentist's general supervision. While this is a new idea to many people, dental therapists have successfully provided high-quality, routine dental care in Alaska since 2005 and in more than 50 countries for over 90 years. Where dentists are in short supply, dental therapists can expand the reach of dentists and provide vital dental services, oral health education, prevention and consistency of care for under-served communities.
The Health Resources and Services Administration cited that 52.4 million Americans do not receive needed dental care services in some areas of the country due to a shortage of dentists. To meet their need for dental providers, it would take 10,242 practitioners - a deficit that dental therapists could quickly and easily fill.
In addition to a national shortage of providers, high cost and lack of dental insurance are also barriers for too many Americans who are not receiving dental care. A 2011 survey conducted by Lake Research Partners found that 41 percent of survey respondents delayed getting dental care in the past twelve months due to cost. As a result, many people live in pain, missing school or work, and in extreme cases, die from untreated dental infections. This survey reinforced the research cited by The Health Resources and Services Administration: cost and provider availability are the major barriers to care.
Recognizing the struggle Americans face in accessing care, the survey by Lake Research Partners also asked about a new approach to providing dental care - dental therapists. The survey found that a vast majority (78 percent) would support the training of "licensed dental practitioners" to provide preventive and routine care.
The passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) signaled that policymakers understand the importance of oral health and the need to extend the reach of dentists by adding alternative providers to the dental team. The oral health provisions included in the ACA and the Children's Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act ensures that every child has access to dental insurance.
Community Catalyst has a history of building the consumer and community leadership required to transform the American health care system. With support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which has a long history of supporting oral and dental health initiatives, Community Catalyst provides assistance to the five states who are building consumer and community advocacy to improve access to oral health by expanding the dental team. The Dental Therapist Project is focused on ensuring that every community has access to dental care.