Dental therapy practice patterns in Minnesota: a baseline study

Community Dent Oral Epidemiol. 2016 Oct;44(5):458-66. doi: 10.1111/cdoe.12235. Epub 2016 Apr 25.

Abstract

Objectives: A chronic shortage of dentists, the importance of oral health, and the lack of access to care led to the introduction of a new oral health practitioner in Minnesota, the dental therapist. Dental therapy graduates from the University of Minnesota have been in practice since 2012. To date, there has been no formal study of how they have been incorporated into dental practice. The purpose of this study was to obtain baseline knowledge of dental therapists' practice patterns in Minnesota and determine if dentists' patterns of work changed after a dental therapist was employed.

Methods: Four dental practices were sampled purposefully to obtain various practice types and geographic locations within Minnesota. Secondary data were collected from practice management software databases in each practice between January-March, 2015. Data were used to describe the work undertaken by dental therapists, the types of patients seen and payer mix. Additionally, data from 6 months before and after employment of the dental therapist were collected to determine whether dentists' practice patterns changed after a dental therapist was employed.

Results: Dental therapists were employed full-time, seeing an average of 6.8 patients per day. No distinct pattern emerged with regard to ages of patients seen by dental therapists. Dental therapists saw up to 90% of uninsured patients or patients on public assistance. Restorative services across practices comprised an average of 68% of work undertaken by dental therapists. Dentists delegated a full range of procedures within the dental therapy scope of practice indicating trust and acceptance of dental therapists. Dentists in two practices began to take on more complex dental procedures after a dental therapist joined the practice.

Conclusion: Dental therapists are treating a high number of uninsured and underinsured patients, suggesting that they are expanding access to dental care in rural and metropolitan areas of Minnesota. Dentists appear to have an adequate workload for dental therapists and are delegating a full range of procedures within their scope of practice. Dentists performed fewer restorative and preventive procedures after a DT was hired.

Keywords: alternative dental workforce models; dental practice patterns; dental therapy.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Child
  • Dental Assistants / statistics & numerical data
  • Dental Care / statistics & numerical data
  • Humans
  • Minnesota
  • Practice Management, Dental / statistics & numerical data
  • Practice Patterns, Dentists' / statistics & numerical data*
  • Specialties, Dental / statistics & numerical data
  • Workforce
  • Young Adult