Florida is in the midst of a dental access crisis. There are too few dentists to go around, especially in rural, hard-to-reach and low-income communities. As a result, oral health suffers.
Although dentists have been stepping up to provide more pro bono services, it’s still not enough. There are 24 counties in Florida with a population-to-dentist ratio greater than 3,000 to one.
And while Florida is far from the only state experiencing a shortage in dentists, we are not yet among those addressing the problem through dental therapy, an effective, safe and innovative solution proven to help increase access to care for underserved populations.
The 2019 Florida Legislature will consider proposals to authorize a new category of oral health practitioners called “dental therapists,” an effort being spearheaded by Reps. Rene Plasencia and Juan Fernandez-Barquin and Sen. Jeff Brandes. This policy reform has already been adopted in Minnesota, Maine, Vermont, Michigan, Oregon, Washington and Alaska, and multiple other states are considering adding them to the oral health workforce.
Dental therapists provide routine preventive and restorative care services such as filling cavities or placing temporary crowns. They are hired and supervised by dentists and able to practice outside of dental offices in community-based locations. In states that have adopted this innovation, individuals going through the program are trained right alongside future dentists. They take the same exam as future dentists. Much like an advanced registered nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant, their role is to expand the ability of people to get treatment and allow a dentist to operate at the higher end of his or her license.
A comprehensive report from the James Madison Institute highlighted the multiple benefits of adding dental therapists to Florida’s workforce. Increased access to care and improved oral health outcomes for underserved populations, reductions in wait and travel time and additional revenue injected into local economies are just a few of the benefits other states are experiencing.
For years, many Floridians, both insured and uninsured, have faced extreme barriers to accessing oral health care. Florida is ranked, for example, in the bottom quartile for its percentage of children covered by Medicaid who received preventive dental services.
Even more troubling? The number of people who end up in Florida emergency rooms for dental problems has grown by more than 56 percent, from 104,642 in 2005 to 163,900 in 2014.
The issue will only become worse as time goes on, as the nationwide shortage of dentists is projected to grow to 15,600 by 2025.
The Floridians for Dental Access coalition includes groups from all corners of the ideological spectrum, like JMI and the Florida Policy Institute. There may be areas of policy in which we have different proposals, but on this one, we are in complete agreement.
Dental therapy has broad appeal because it just makes sense. Licensing dental therapists is a crucial piece of the puzzle to meet the needs of Florida’s underserved communities.
Holly Bullard is chief strategy and operations officer at the Florida Policy Institute. Sal Nuzzo is VP of policy at the James Madison Institute.
Read more here: https://www.tallahassee.com/story/opinion/2019/02/11/dental-care-shortage-warrants-innovative-strategy-florida-opinion/2800936002/