Oral health advocates are trained to reinforce that oral health is essential to overall health. The good news is that a poll released today by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (conducted by Lake Research) found that 79 percent of survey respondents say that receiving regular dental care is very or somewhat important.

The bad news is that 41 percent of respondents report that they or someone in their household have put off dental care in the last twelve month due to costs. Respondents recognized that too many Americans cannot regularly access preventive and routine dental care and, as a result, 78 percent of respondents said they would support training new providers to offer routine dental care.

The survey indicated that cost and availability of providers are the major barriers to care:

  • — 84 percent of respondents believe that the number of people who cannot afford dental care is a problem
  • — 82 percent of respondents believe that it is hard for people to get free or low-cost dental care in the communities where they live
  • — Nearly one third of respondents (30 percent) say they do not have access to a place where they get regular dental care
The survey highlights the fact that millions of Americans go without routine oral health care because of problems with access or cost. Simply put, there are not enough affordable options for oral health care, and there is a severe shortage of dentists in low-income, rural and underserved communities.

Recognizing the struggle Americans face in accessing care, the survey also asked about a new approach to providing dental care – the use of mid-level providers known as dental therapists. Respondents recognized the potential of dental therapists to improve care. As noted above, 78 percent of respondents say they would support the training of “licensed dental practitioners” to provide preventive and routine care.

Dental therapists are well-trained dental providers who provide routine care in communities where there are not enough dentists. They are filling a void in Alaska through providing care in Alaska Native communities. As a result, dental therapists will soon practice in Minnesota in underserved communities throughout the state.

As we look at innovative ways to improve access to oral health care and how care is delivered, these findings indicate that the public supports training dental therapists as a way to do both. The truth is mid-level providers have helped improve the medical team’s ability provide care to the American public.

Experiences in Alaska, Minnesota and 54 other countries show dental therapists enhance the ability of the dental team to deliver care to underserved populations as documented in a recent GAO report.

On the ground, our state partners in five states – Kansas, Ohio, New Mexico, Vermont and Washington – are leading efforts to increase access to dental care by adding alternative providers to the team. Oregon passed a bill to establish an alternative provider pilot program, and Maine passed legislation to study the issue. Last year, Congress included language authorizing alternative dental provider pilot programs in the Affordable Care Act. There is growing momentum for this approach from the public and policymakers.

This study validates the thousands of personal stories our partners and other state advocates have collected from members of the community who go without care because they cannot afford it or there is no provider in their community.

Despite study after study, support from Congress for the establishment of the Alternative Dental Provider Program in the Affordable Care Act, the critical need for better access to care, and a model of successful deployment of dental therapists for over 90 years, organized dentistry remains opposed to the model and has no evidence to support its position. The ugly truth is that in the last year, organized dentistry, has vigorously opposed funding the alternative provider pilot program and has opposed dental therapists as a way to increase access to care.

There are too many tragic stories in policymakers’ own communities throughout the country for organized dentistry to ignore the fact that accessing dental care is a problem, and there is ample evidence that dental therapists can make a positive impact in addressing the unmet oral health needs in our country. Our job is clear – keep working to elevate awareness of how important oral health is to overall health and continue to demonstrate how dental therapists can benefit the millions of Americans who cannot get care or put it off.

— David Jordan, Director Dental Access Project