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Dental therapists all smiles in Gopher State

By Kevyn Burger of the Badger Institute

Dr. Gary Plotz is the equivalent of a dental one-man-band.

The only dentist practicing in rural Murray County, Minnesota, (population 8700) Plotz, 40, works long days in his office in Slayton, 80 miles from Sioux Falls, SD and 180 miles from the Twin Cities. Plotz can give his patients implants, crowns, bridges and root canal procedures, perform minor oral surgical procedures and straighten and whiten their smiles.

But these days Plotz doesn’t spend much of his time on what dentists call ‘restorative care,’ drilling and filling cavities. For those appointments, and for exams and care for his pediatric patients, he relies on his dental therapist Lydia Diekmann.

“In our area we have a big need for basic services so it’s a perfect scenario for a dental therapist. Having Lydia on staff allows me to offer advanced care to a greater number of patients, with a shorter waiting time,” he said.

When its Legislature authorized dental therapists a decade ago, Minnesota became the first state in the nation to license dental therapists. It’s a profession that is new to the US but is common elsewhere in the world. The profession began in New Zealand in 1921 and now dental therapists proved care in more than 50 countries.

Like nurse practitioners who offer patients more care than a nurse but less than a physician, dental therapists are mid-level professionals who can provide more oral care than dental hygienists but less than dentists. Dental therapists are trained to provide routine health care services and build cost efficiencies into the health care system.

“Dental therapists allow the dentist to practice at the top of the license and meet complex treatment needs. They can do about 60 common procedures; dentists are trained to do hundreds,” explained Bridgett Anderson, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Dentistry, which regulates the state’s dental profession.

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