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Dental Therapy: Then and Now

The history of dental therapists can be traced back to the early 20th century.

Dental therapists are primary oral health professionals trained to perform basic clinical dental treatment and preventive services within a variety of practice settings. Dental therapy legislation continues to gain steam in the United States, and while the idea of this type of oral healthcare provider seems new to us, it’s not.

The history of dental therapists can be traced back to the early 20th century.1 In 1913, Norman K. Cox, DDS, the president of the New Zealand Dental Association, proposed a system of school clinics operated by the state and staffed by “oral hygienists” to address the dental needs of children between the ages of 6 and 14. The first dental therapy program in New Zealand began in 1921. These dental nurses were initially trained to provide preventive and simple restorative care to children up to age 12.

From 1921 to 1990, the New Zealand Department of Health ran the Wellington School for Dental Nurses, which offered a 2-year certificate. In 1952, this program was expanded to include the Auckland School for Dental Nurses and, in 1956, the Christchurch School for Dental Nurses opened. In 1948, Malaysia approved the first dental therapy program outside of New Zealand. This was followed by Sri Lanka in 1949. Over the next several decades, dental therapy programs were established in Australia, Canada, Finland, and the United Kingdom.

In the United States, the first dental therapy program was initiated in Alaska in 2005. This program was developed in response to a shortage of dentists in rural and remote areas of the state. The first dental therapists in Alaska began seeing patients in 2006. Since then, dental therapy programs have been established in several other states. Dental therapists in the US can provide a wide range of services, including: restorations, extractions, prophylaxes, sealants,fluoride treatments,radiographs, and oral hygiene instruction.

Currently in the US, there are different dental therapy education models. This issue includes a feature from Dimensions of Dental Hygiene’s annual supplement Perspectives on the Midlevel Practitioner. The piece, “Pathway to Dental Therapy,” focuses on the two types of dental therapy education models.

Dental therapists are authorized in at least some settings in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Michigan, Minnesota, Maine, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington. More than a dozen other states and Tribal governments are in the process of exploring authorization of dental therapists.2

Dental therapists play an important role in expanding access to dental care for underserved populations. A recent study found that they provide safe, high-quality care while improving access and patient acceptability.3 Such care is needed, especially in the most vulnerable, at-risk populations. Dental therapy is an idea whose time has come, and did so over a century ago.

Jill Rethman, RDH, BA
Editor in Chief
jrethman@belmontbusinessmedia.com


References

  1. New Zealand Oral Health Association. The New Zealand Oral Health Profession’s History. Available at: nzoha.org.nz/the-new-zealand-oral-health-professions-history. Accessed October 22, 2023.
  2. National Partnership for Dental Therapy. About Dental Therapy. Available at: dentaltherapy.org/about/about-dental-therapy. Accessed October 22, 2023.
  3. Mertz E, Kottek A, Werts M, et al. Dental therapists in the United States. Med Care. 2021;59(10 Suppl 5):S441–S448.

From Dimensions in Dental Hygiene. November/December 2023; 21(10):8.

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