November 2, 2010; Source: New York Times | The American Dental Association (ADA) claims it opposes letting dental therapists do work normally done by bona fide dentists—even on people living in high-poverty or underserved communities—out of fear for patient safety. Those in favor say dentists actually fear the competition will take a bite out of their practices.

A new study underwritten by the W. K. Kellogg, Rasmuson and Bethel Community Services Foundations puts more teeth in the argument that patients have nothing to worry about (beyond the fears associated with going to the dentist) when treated by dental therapists. The research project examined the quality of care provided by nondentists in Alaska who received two years of training to perform a limited number of procedures. The study found that the care provided was “safe, competent, and appropriate.”

While Alaska is the only state that allows nondentists to treat patients, proponents hope the study will boost to efforts to extend this practice to communities where there aren't enough dentists to care for people. According to the New York Times, the need for dental care is so extreme in Alaska that 60 percent of the state's "Native children ages 2 to 5 have untreated decay, and 20 percent of Native adults over 55 have no teeth at all."

Even though some dentists back training for therapists to do simple procedures, most likely under the supervision of dentists in public health clinics, the ADA is clamping down against this practice. Instead, it favors one of its programs that uses community dental health coordinators to do teeth cleaning and other noninvasive procedures. The new study isn't the only evidence that dental therapists provide valuable and safe care. The Times also reports that dental therapy programs are well established overseas.—Bruce Trachtenberg