If dental hygienists were able to receive the additional education and training to become a licensed dental therapist, we could reach many more Floridians who need our services, especially the underserved in vulnerable populations.
Florida currently lacks dentists – roughly 5.5 million Floridians live in areas designated by the federal government as having a shortage of dentists; and, 63 of Florida’s 67 counties have at least one shortage area. Overall, it would take more than 1,250 dentists to remove the designation. With the need for additional oral care providers in Florida so great, it will take multiple solutions to help alleviate this crisis.
One solution on the table in the Florida legislative session that opens Tuesday, which would allow the state to expand its workforce and welcome a new oral care provider, would be the authorization of dental therapists. Mid-level providers who would fall on the dental health team between a dentist and a dental hygienist, dental therapists provide basic, routine oral health care under the supervision of a dentist.
When first authorized to practice in Florida, I believe dental hygienists would make excellent dental therapist candidates. The dental hygienists on my team, such as Michelle Cunningham, not only have an in-depth understanding of the oral health field, but they are familiar with the dental team, our setting and tools, procedures and have received much education and training in the field already.
If dental hygienists were able to receive the additional education and training to become a licensed dental therapist, we could reach many more Floridians who need our services, especially the underserved in vulnerable populations, as dental therapists can deliver care in community-based settings, such as in schools, rural settings or nursing homes.
In addition to helping reach more Floridians who need oral health care, allowing dental therapists to practice in Florida would afford dental hygienists the chance to further their education, open more doors for employment opportunities and enable these providers to gain more experience. It would also create an entirely new niche, for those who are interested in entering the medical field, to consider.
In fact, schools in Florida, such as Miami-Dade College, have indicated they would be willing to implement dental therapy programs should the measure pass; and, as other states have dental therapy programs in place, Florida will have the same national standards as dental and dental hygiene programs when implementing program requirements and objectives. For the limited procedures they may perform, such as fillings, stainless steel crowns, pulpotomies, cleanings or sealants, dental therapists are trained to the same national standards as a dentist. After also passing the clinical licensing exam as dental candidates for the procedures they have in common, dental therapists would apply to the Florida Board of Dentistry for licensure.
With other medical teams including mid-level providers, such as a physician’s assistant in medicine, it seems as though the dental industry would follow suit. Currently, 12 states allow a dentist to hire a dental therapist and I urge our Florida lawmakers to approve this new provider this legislative session.
MITCHEL SENFT, LAKE WORTH BEACH Editor’s note: Dr.Senft is a general dentist at South Florida Sedation Dentistry in Palm Beach County.