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Dental therapists could be vital to NM health care

We have a dental crisis in New Mexico. Our state is underserved and many areas do not even have a practicing dentist.

Many across our state go without dental care and those who do get care in rural areas have to travel a long way to get it. For several years, I worked as a dentist in Fort Sumner and I treated patients from a lot of areas, to include: Santa Rosa, Roswell, Santa Fe, Vaughn, Albuquerque and some from Texas border towns.

Many of my patients spent several hours in a car each way just to get care at our clinic.

Some came simply because they knew me. Others came because we used a sliding payment scale based on income and didn’t turn anyone away.

Still others couldn’t get an appointment elsewhere.

There are so few dentists, and even fewer who accept Medicaid, and our clinic was their best choice.

By the time they arrived, some had advanced oral disease and most were in desperate need of extractions, partially due to lack of education and poor access to dental care that many could not afford.

This is a sad situation and one that I still see in my current clinic in Artesia – which is located in a shortage area.

Because of our dental shortage, less than half of the children from families in poverty see a dentist. Poor oral health during these early years can create problems that last a lifetime. Many do not make the connection that poor oral health leads to a multitude of overall health issues.

This would be greatly improved by better dental education, which would be taken care of by a mid-level dental provider.

We are in desperate need of a change to make overall health care accessible to all across New Mexico and to increase dental education. By creating a new kind of mid-level practitioner called a dental therapist, we can begin to combat our dental shortage, and make sure New Mexicans receive dental health education and quality dental care.

For years, legislation to create such a health care provider in our state has been introduced; however, there has been opposition.

Many dentists don’t like this idea … and I understand. I was one of them.

When I initially heard about dental therapists, I was incorrectly informed that they were untrained individuals. Luckily, I was afforded the opportunity to see, firsthand, what a dental therapist is, how they are trained and the quality of the treatment they provide.

Dental therapists are highly trained health care professionals. They typically are selected from their home communities, educated and then return to serve their communities.

They work as part of a team led by a dentist. They don’t do everything a dentist does, but they provide many of the most commonly needed services, starting with dental education, simple fillings and non-surgical extractions.

They perform these tasks with textbook delivery and are a vital part of their patient’s wellness team. I would personally have no hesitation in allowing a dental therapist to perform procedures in my own mouth. Additionally, a dental therapist in my practice would free me up to do more complex dental treatment for more patients.

Following such a model, our state would help to alleviate the strain of our dental shortage and begin providing quality dental care in even the most rural areas. Patients would get better education, more preventive care, and have fewer cavities and less tooth loss as a result.

If dental therapists become a reality in New Mexico, they would add to the dental practice, just as nurse practitioners and physician assistants have done to medicine. I would gladly step forward to work with them, because we need dental therapists on our team.

In summary, a dental therapist is not in competition with a dentist, but rather an adjunct to a dentist and a team player.

This legislative session, there will be a bill to make this happen. I call on my colleagues and the general public to join me in supporting dental therapist legislation. Let’s make this happen in New Mexico – for the overall health of our state.

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