Dental therapists have been working in Minnesota clinics for about 10 years. To assess their impact on dental practices, the Center for Health Workforce Studies at the University of Albany School of Public Health, in New York, studied data contrasting operations before and after their introduction into dental teams.1
The recently released findings from the quantitative study, funded by Pew Charitable Trusts, indicate that dental clinics with dental therapists on staff have experienced improvements on a number of levels. Such practices have been able to see more patients and provide more services. As a result, their revenues have also seen a bump.2
GATHERING DATA FROM GROUND ZERO
Researchers analyzed data on 76,342 patients who were treated at either a rural or urban Apple Tree nonprofit dental clinic in Minnesota between 2009 and 2019. They investigated the effect on quantity, type, and relative value of services provided in the clinics before and after the hiring of dental therapists.
A pioneer in the training and utilization of dental therapists in the United States, Minnesota was the first state to green light this type of midlevel practitioner in 2009. In operation for 35 years, Apple Tree dental clinics were among the first in Minnesota to hire dental therapists beginning in late 2011 and early 2012. In 2013, the organization began hiring advanced dental therapists, whose additional education and training permit them to perform an even broader range of services.
Study findings indicate that key benefits enjoyed by clinics after adding dental therapists to their staffs include, on average, an increase in daily patient visits, gross revenues, and numbers of procedures. The data also revealed a difference between the contributions of dental therapists and advanced dental therapists, with the latter maintaining a slight edge across all categories. For instance, between 2018 and 2019, the percentage of restorative services was two times higher for advanced dental therapists than that of dental therapists.
Now allowed in a growing number of settings, dental therapists and advanced dental therapists are permitted to provide a broadening range of preventive and restorative care including placing fillings and temporary crowns. In fact, evidence suggests that it’s not uncommon for dental therapists as a whole to become quite proficient at particular procedures, leading to increased clinic productivity and efficiency.
The benefits provided by these midlevel practitioners enable dentists to focus on the more technically challenging, higher value services of dentistry, rather than spending time performing more everyday dental treatments.
ACCESS TO CARE
Patients of low socioeconomic status, those insured by Medicaid, special needs patients, and individuals living in dental provider shortage areas have long suffered from a lack of oral health care. Approximately 80% of the patients seeking care at Apple Tree are low-income or covered by Medicaid. The study confirmed that the addition of dental therapists to the dental team contributed to expanded access to care for these underserved populations.
- Langelier M, Surdu S, Moore J. The contributions of dental therapists and advanced dental therapists in the dental centers of Apple Tree Dental in Minnesota. Center for Health Workforce Studies, School of Public Health, SUNY Albany. Available here.
- Angelone KM, Corr A. Ten years of data show dental therapists boost productivity and revenues. Pew Charitable Trusts. Available here.