Point of View: License dental therapists to widen access to care
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When Floridians don’t have access to dental care, minor problems often grow to complications that are incredibly painful and very costly. Given the alarming shortage of dentists in Florida, many Floridians are suffering. But there’s something we can do to help. Licensing dental therapists to practice in Florida can increase access to dental care across the state, bringing relief to people in pain and preventing others from suffering.
I know because this happened to me. I suffered from an agonizing toothache, but I didn’t have access to dental care. A friend referred me to a dentist who educated me on the importance of preventive care, proper hygiene and early cavity treatment to prevent pain and tooth loss. This visit not only relieved my pain but also inspired me to become a dental hygienist so I could help ensure others would not have to go through the pain I experienced.
As a licensed dental hygienist since 2001, I got involved with the Florida Public Health Institute. This is when my eyes were truly opened to the population of people in extreme need of dental care. I couldn’t believe there was such a vast need where I lived in Palm Beach County.
But the problem is widespread. Because of the dentist shortage, which has increased since COVID-19, more than 5 million Floridians have limited or no access to dental care.
I visited daycares in Miami for young children to shadow a preventive program for young children. The number of children at these daycares who were under four years old and suffering from rampant decay and abscesses, with many having their teeth rotten to the gum, was heartbreaking.
There are some preventive and volunteer programs to help those with dental needs, and I have participated in many, but preventive programs don’t do fillings and volunteer programs are not consistent. Due to the shortest of dentists in Florida, we need to be better at developing a broader expansion of consistent care and provide basic care that prevents small cavities from growing into huge problems.
One in five children across Florida suffers from treatable and preventable dental issues. More than 23% of Florida’s third-graders suffer from untreated tooth decay, the sixth-highest percentage in the nation of third-grade children with unfilled cavities.
Persons with developmental issues and seniors suffer the most from the shortage of dentists. In Florida, 34% of senior citizens have lost six teeth due to tooth decay or gum disease and 14% have had all their teeth extracted.
Poor dental health is the root of other problems. Patients with serious dental conditions are 25% more likely to suffer from illnesses like heart disease and diabetes.
There is a measure being considered by the Florida Legislature this session that will increase access to dental care. SB 604/HB 961 establishes licensure for dental therapists to provide care in Florida.
As a past Chair of the Florida Board of Dentistry and member for nine years, one of my highest priorities was to protect the public. I am very confident that dental therapy is a safe and effective answer to Florida’s dental access problem.
When I was introduced to the concept of dental therapy, I had to see it for myself. In 2018, I traveled to Minnesota, one of the 12 states where dental therapists are licensed to provide care. There, I learned that dental therapists are formally educated to perform simple procedures like preventive care, filling a cavity and providing patient education on proper dental hygiene. I saw with my own eyes the intense education and exams dental therapists must pass to provide care. Dental therapy students and dental students were attending the same classes and took the same licensing exam for the services they have in common.
The relationship between a dental therapist and a dentist is similar to that between a physician’s assistant and a doctor. Dental therapists work under the supervision of dentists and are limited in their scope of procedures which must be authorized by the dentist just as with dental hygienists. They are held to the same standards as dentists and dental hygienists set forth by the laws of this state. This team approach expands the number of patients who can receive care because the dental therapists can perform simple procedures.
It is time to increase access to dental care by working smarter, not harder. Dental therapy is the smart solution to Florida’s dental access disparity. Call your state senators and state representatives and ask them to pass SB 604 and HB 961.
Cathy Cabanzon has been a dental hygienist in Palm Beach County for 20 years and was a board member on the Florida Board of Dentistry from May 2012 to February 2021.