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Dental Therapists Touted as Key to Advancing Dental Care Equity

Addressing dental deserts
Addressing dental deserts

The term "food deserts" is used a lot in the fight against hunger, but groups calling attention to the shortage of oral health care professionals say there are "dental deserts" too, and they hope suggested solutions gain momentum.

The Kaiser Family Foundation said the U.S. needs to add nearly 12,000 dentists to close gaps in shortage areas. Wisconsin has 173 areas under the designation, leaving small-town residents and marginalized populations without options to keep their teeth healthy.

Matt Crespin, executive director of the Children's Health Alliance of Wisconsin, said the state has done a good job in building up certain types of care in underserved areas, but there are limitations.

"We take portable equipment out into communities and provide a considerable amount of preventive care in about 1,100 schools across the state," Crespin explained. "Unfortunately, about 40% of those kids that we see in schools need follow-up care; so fillings, extractions."

Crespin acknowledged coordinating follow-up care is often challenging. He hopes in the next legislative session, Wisconsin joins the list of states to approve a licensing program for dental therapists.

Supporters say they do a lot of the same types of work as dentists, including restorative care, but their employment costs are more manageable. The American Dental Association opposes the idea, citing safety concerns, but backers say the programs provide extensive training.

Dr. Frank Catalanotto, board member of the National Coalition of Dentists for Health Equity, said dental therapists have proven effective in states like Minnesota, suggesting they can help families elsewhere who have to travel great lengths for oral care.

"So now, mom or dad doesn't have to take four hours of time off from work at their hourly job to take the kid to the dentist," Catalanotto emphasized.

Catalanotto emphasized the ripple effects of not having access to quality dental care can be severe, noting for kids, it goes beyond medical issues.

"When children have toothaches and they're in pain, there's lots of science that clearly documents that they don't learn as well as others," Catalanotto reported.

For adults, he added, the results of poor oral health, such as gum disease, puts them at risk for other
complications, including heart disease.

Mike Moen is a radio news reporter with nearly two decades of experience in the field. He has covered much of the upper Midwest, including Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin and the Dakotas. Many of his stories have aired nationally, including several public radio programs.
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