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Dental therapists expand dental care in rural Minnesota

There are currently 77 licensed dental therapists in Minnesota - and Teresa Bushnell is one of them.

Bushnell works at different employer sites across the state, including the Clay County Family Service Center, where she performs oral health procedures on children. She says dental therapists can focus on about 82 services, whereas dentists are trained to do more than 500.

"Dental therapy is a mid-level provider that provides restorations for malgums, composites, and they do a lot more work with children - like root canals, stainless steal crowns. We provide a little spectrum of what a dentist can do."

Bushnell says this limited focus allows for a high degree of specialization in those procedures. And she says having such a provider on staff can allow for more patients to be seen with the same level of excellent care, at a lower cost to the dentist AND the patient. Bushnell also says having an oral health team of dental therapists can help fill gaps in service areas currently experiencing dental provider shortages.

"So there are a lot of rural areas where there's just not enough dentists to meet the needs, and also for those who are on state plans and Medicaid programs, the reimbursement rate is just so low for dentists that it's not worth their financial gain to see these patients. Usually if they try to, they're at a loss. So there's quite a few people who have an unmet need, and that's where dental therapy can come in."

Dental therapy was made available in Minnesota in 2011 after the Legislature passed it in 2009. It is not currently available in North Dakota, but the Legislature has looked at the idea twice. Bushnell says many dentists are unsure of dental therapy - but if they don't want a dental therapist in their office, they aren't required to have one. She says it's just one more option to extend oral health care to more people.

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