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A new dental health practitioner

March 17, 2012
By C. Paul Martin, M.D. , Marshall Independent

Our last two columns have addressed one of the main aspects of primary dental care, namely the proper use of the toothbrush. It is the principal tool of use for the most important practitioner of dental health, the individual - that's you, me, and everyone else!

Dental care is initiated, continued, and modified primarily by the consumer himself who manages the entire spectrum of dental care throughout life. Dietary habits, oral hygiene procedures, self care and practices, and education are the responsibility of the individual. Assisting the individual are the other members of the health care team who are familiar to all of us and discussed below.

I like to think that each one of us is responsible for our health care. At the younger ages, we enlist our parents to help us. As we attain nearly independent status, we select personnel trained to assist us: educators, physicians, dentists, nurses, physical and occupational therapists, dietitians, public health workers and associated personnel.

In the last 30 years, medical and dental care have expanded in breadth, depth, and prevalence.

Societal changes have encouraged extension of dental health services to more levels of society and more locations. These changes have required significant increases in the numbers of health care personnel.

We are now familiar with the many types and levels of medical practitioners: physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, nurses, public health workers, etc., all valuable in their roles. Dental care is provided by dentists, dental hygienists, dental assistants, and the newer team members, the REF (Restorative Expanded Function) dental assistants and the dental therapists.

The profession of dental therapy is a developmental result of dental practice growing from the professions of dental hygiene and dental assisting. Dr. Leslie Nordgren, a dental hygienist and research scientist, describes the new profession:"Dental Therapists are educated to provide basic preventive and restorative procedures services that previously only a licensed dentist could perform. They serve patients (for example) who have low incomes, are uninsured or underserved, and patients in dental health professional shortage areas. They practice in dental offices, nursing homes, schools, group homes, and other alternative settings."

Licensed dental therapists work under direct or indirect supervision of a collaborating dentist. They perform dental care in a manner similar to that medical care performed by a nurse practitioner or physician's assistant.

They can do many of the less invasive procedures normally done by dentists while performing many of the more educative and prophylactic tasks which the time required would not permit the dentist to do.

Dental therapists have obtained a bachelor's or master's degree at accredited professional schools in the state of Minnesota. At present only Minnesota schools operate these programs, which include Metropolitan State University's Advanced Dental Program and the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry's Dental Therapy Program.

The program at Metropolitan State University is only for dental hygienists and leads to a dental therapy degree.

The first dental therapists graduated in December 2011, and they are working in the Twin Cities in several dental practices; a dental therapist is working in nearby Montevideo.

Several more students are in training. For more information about these programs and the dental profession and its opportunities, contact your dentist and dental staff or contact the above mentioned training programs.



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