On February 6 in a conference room at the American Dental Association’s headquarters in Chicago, the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) voted overwhelmingly to adopt national training standards for dental therapy education programs.

The 22-6 vote (with two abstentions) signaled that organized dentistry’s accrediting body thought it was in the best interest of the dental profession and the public to develop national standards for the program. More importantly, the vote was recognition that dental therapy as a profession is here to stay.

Acknowledging the need for national standards and establishing them is another important step in dentistry’s path toward adopting team based providers. A step the medical community took decades ago when it expanded the medical team to include physician assistants and nurse practitioners.

The process to establish these new dental therapy standards has been more than five years in the making. Catalyzed by a 2009 request from the Dean of the University of Minnesota Dental School, CODA formed a task force to explore developing standards for dental therapy. CODA has put forth multiple draft versions of standards.

Thanks to the CODA’s policy to allow for public commentary, more than 200 of our partners including community organizations, tribal organizations, dentists, community colleges, dental hygienists, and former government leaders – signed onto or submitted comments to CODA. The comments ranged from former Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis Sullivan making the case for standards that would produce culturally competent providers to Community Catalyst arguing that providers are needed to meet unmet needs, to the National Congress of American Indians highlighting how this provider can benefit American Indian Populations to the American Association of Community Colleges asking for standards to help guide programs at their schools. 

As a result, CODA adopted standards that:

  • Ensure training institutions will have national and streamlined standards to shape their training programs.
  • Give students from underserved communities the ability to enter accredited programs, be eligible for financial aid, and graduate equipped to meet the unmet needs of their community.
  • Provide a pathway for dental hygienists.

There is still work for be done, CODA needs additional information to vote to implement standards, but the hardest part is behind us. Thanks to last Friday’s vote, the profession is finally on track to add much needed team members to enhance their capacity to deliver patient centered care to people who need it most, in the communities where they live.

Having dental therapists helping dentists improve access to care can’t come soon enough for the millions of people suffering because they cannot find affordable care in their community. And now, not only is implementation of standards inevitable, the practice of dental therapists is imminent.

Last year, Maine added dental therapists to the team. Over a dozen states are exploring how to utilize dental therapists. 

And, now we have national standards. Thank you, CODA.