Objective: Access to adequate oral health care is deficient in many parts of the world. Many countries are now using dental therapists to increase access, particularly for children. To inform the discussion on dental therapists in the workforce, particularly in the United States, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation funded a review of the global literature to identify as many documents as possible related to the practice of dental therapists since the establishment of the School Dental Service in New Zealand in 1921.
Methods: Consultants in each of the countries considered to have a substantive literature on dental therapists were asked to participate in the research; seventeen in total. In addition to identifying and reviewing published articles, a focus of the research was on identifying 'gray' documents. Standard databases were searched for key words associated with dental therapists. In addition, searches were conducted of the governmental and dental association websites of all countries known to have dental therapists in their oral health workforce.
Results: Fifty-four countries, both developing and developed, were identified where dental therapists are members of the workforce. Eleven hundred documents were identified from 26 of these countries, with over 2/3 of them cited in the published monograph. Reliable evidence from the related literature and verbal communication confirmed the utilization of dental therapists in an additional 28 countries. Thirty-three of the countries were members of the Commonwealth of Nations, suggesting a mechanism of spread from New Zealand. Variable lengths of training/education existed for dental therapists with the tradition being 2 years postsecondary. In a few countries, the training of therapists and hygienists is now being combined in a three academic year program. Historically, dental therapists have been employed by government agencies caring for children, typically in school-based programs. Initiatives in some countries allow limited care for adults by dental therapists with additional training.
Conclusions: The evidence indicates that dental therapists provide effective, quality, and safe care for children in an economical manner and are generally accepted both by the public and where their use is established, by the dental profession.
Keywords: access to care; dental therapists; oral health workforce.
© 2013 John Wiley & Sons A/S. Published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.