Minnesota Dental Clinic Shows the Daily Economic Benefits of Dental Therapy

By Sarah Wovcha, Executive Director of the Children’s Dental Services 

Dental therapists are highly trained oral health practitioners that work with dental teams similar to the way physicians’ assistants work with medical teams. Along with providing education and preventive services, they are able to perform common dental procedures such as filling cavities and, in limited cases, removing decayed teeth.

Dental therapists have been practicing in the US for more than ten years. They have improved access to dental care for underserved communities in Alaska since 2005 and in Minnesota since 2011. Vermont and Maine recently authorized them to work in those states. Oregon and Washington have hired dental therapists as part of demonstration projects within tribal communities, and nearly a dozen more states are considering authorizing the providers.

As Executive Director of Children’s Dental Services, a clinic that provides dental care to children from low-income families in Minneapolis, I have to balance the huge need for subsidized dental care with the need to keep our clinic financially solvent so it can stay open.

In 2009, members of the Minnesota legislature approved the licensure of dental therapists, highly trained mid-level professionals who can perform routine and preventative services through team-based care, often compared to the way physician assistants work in medicine.

When the bill passed, dental therapists were touted as a cost-effective way to increase access to dental care and our clinic was one of the first to put them to work in our state. It turned out to be a wonderful decision—both for our young patients and the financial stability of our clinic.

We use a team-based approach. Dentists supervise our dental therapists and because they are paid less than dentists our clinic is able save over $60,000 each year. That savings goes directly back into serving our patients. This had a significant impact to our bottom line during the recession allowing us stay open when other clinics were being forced to close.

But it is not all about saving money. Our dental therapists have provided care to more than 18,000 patients, decreasing our wait time for appointments by two weeks, and increasing overall patient time with the provider by ten minutes. Furthermore, we’ve been able to extend our reach to remote parts of the state increasing dental access to those most in need.

In addition to these care delivery improvements, we are now using dental therapists as part of our emergency room diversion program helping to reduce the number of people seeking dental care in the ER, which is saving the state money.

I cannot imagine our clinic operating without these critical members of the dental care team. For us, they have proven to be a financially viable solution for making sure that low-income, uninsured and underinsured kids in our state have access to high-quality dental care.

Sarah Wovcha joined Children’s Dental Services as Executive Director in January of 2001. Sarah holds a Juris Doctorate (JD) from the University of Minnesota Law School and a Master of Public Health (MPH). She was one of the first employers of dental therapists in the state of Minnesota.