North Dakota is in serious need of dental providers and former secretary of health and human services, Dr. Louis Sullivan, is stepping up to state legislators to find a sensible solution.
His suggestion? Provide state licensing for dental therapists. A recent article published by The Dickinson Press reported that approximately 40% of counties in North Dakota have between one and zero available dentists. Sullivan believes licensing dental therapists will relieve the stressful demands put upon dentists while simultaneously granting underserved populations better access to dental services.
Sullivan was quoted as saying, “We do have a shortage of dentists, and I support training more dentists, but the extent of the need for dental care is not going to be met by training…more dentists. We need to expand the capabilities.”
To his credit, Sullivan may be an ideal candidate to lead the dental therapy crusade. Aside from working under President George H.W. Bush, he also chairs the Sullivan Alliance to Transform Health Professions and is the founding dean of the Morehouse School of Medicine in Georgia. And his idea is not a new one.
Alaska and Minnesota have already set the precedence for dental therapy licensing in the country. In effect, dental therapists are akin to nurse practitioners or physician assistants; they perform a limited scope of practice under the direct or indirect supervision of a dentist.
This is not the first time that North Dakota has considered dental therapist licensing. In 2015, state legislators voted on a bill that would have instituted a mid-level dental provider model to dispatch more dental professionals to rural areas. Yet, the bill was blocked by a 6-40 vote.
The state government’s reluctance to support dental therapist licensing in North Dakota may be influence by opposition voiced by strong leaders in the dental community. The executive director of the North Dakota Dental Association Brent Holman commented on dental therapist licensing saying, “Our thought is it’s still a premature concept.”
Issues regarding a dental therapist’s ability to ensure patient safety and quality care remain the biggest concerns regarding licensing measures.