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As a practicing dentist in Fort Sumner, I see patients from just about everywhere in New Mexico: Santa Rosa, Roswell, Vaughn — and even from Albuquerque and some of the Texas border towns.
Many of these folks drive several hours each way to get dental care at our clinic. Some come simply because they know me.
Others make the trip because our clinic uses a sliding payment scale based on income and we don’t turn anyone away.
A high percentage of my patients’ needs are extractions. That’s because a lot of the patients I see don’t have access to preventive and routine dental care. They are poor, often without health insurance, and from remote areas where dental care is hard to get.
Across New Mexico, many people struggle to get dental care. Less than half of children from poor families see a dentist. Yet poor oral health at this stage in their lives can adversely affect their learning, social development and overall health for a lifetime.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We could bring high-quality, affordable dental care to more people by creating a new kind of mid-level practitioner called a dental therapist. Many dentists don’t like this idea and I understand, because I was one of them.
When I first heard about dental therapists, they were described to me as untrained people performing oral surgery. Naturally, I was outraged. How could this be? But then I was invited to see the dental therapist program in Alaska. So I went.
As they say, seeing is believing and what I saw changed my mind completely.
First, I learned what dental therapists are — and what they aren’t. Dental therapists are trained to provide preventive and routine care in underserved communities. Typically, they are recruited by their home communities to practice there after they complete training.
They work as part of a team led by a dentist. They don’t do everything a dentist does, but they provide many of the most commonly needed dental services, including fillings and non-surgical extractions.
In Alaska, the students learn from the same textbooks that are used in dental school and they are taught by university professors. During their first year, they attend classes five days a week, every week except summers. The second year of their education focuses on clinical practice. Under the direct supervision of a dentist, they practice performing the same narrow set of procedures over and over, perfecting their skills.
This is a tough program and not everyone graduates. By the time they begin practicing, dental therapists have as much clinical experience in the procedures they are certified to perform as a dental school graduate.
There are a couple of other things that I really like about this model.
First, there’s the flexibility. If I had a dental therapist in our office, it would free me up to do more complicated procedures. The dental therapist would take care of the more routine procedures. Eventually, I would expect my rate of extractions to drop significantly as a result. Patients would be getting more preventive care and fewer cavities.
Second, this approach allows communities to tap into their greatest resources — their young people — and recruit them to help solve a serious community problem.
This approach could bring needed dental care to many more people in New Mexico. If dental therapists become a reality in New Mexico, I feel they would be an adjunct to dentistry, just as nurse practitioners and physician assistants have been to medicine. I would gladly step forward to work with them and I’m sure many of my colleagues would as well.
We need dental therapists on our team. Let’s make this happen in New Mexico.
Rhoads is a dentist in Fort Sumner.