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A plan to provide affordable dental care

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​Community colleges and workforce investment boards (WIBs) are ideal institutions to advocate for affordable dental care and to train the workforce to offer it, according to a new report.

Several states are considering the scope of practice for midlevel dental health professionals—such as dental hygienists—to meet the growing need, especially in rural and inner-city areas, said the report from the Pew Charitable Trusts. About one in four children—or 19 million—lack dental coverage, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Alaska and Minnesota already use dental therapists. But developing those professionals will require new training programs and recruitment efforts, according to the Pew report. Community colleges and WIBs can help lead the effort based on their ability to bring together partners, analyze local needs and develop quality programs quickly, it said. Many two-year colleges are also located in or near areas that need such services the most.

“Community colleges are uniquely positioned to develop midlevel providers as career option to effectively train a geographically and culturally diverse workforce, representative of the communities most in need of greater access to dental care,” the report said.

Familiar territory

Community colleges are already familiar with training dental care workers. Two-year colleges offer more than 240 of the nation’s 332 entry-level dental hygiene programs, according to the American Dental Hygienists’ Association. Many community colleges already provide some free dental services for local communities as part of their training programs.

WIBs can help by supporting change to state laws to expand the dental workforce, developing job opportunities among dental practices in underserved communities, recruiting for training programs and connecting graduates with employers.

Growing the Dental Workforce: The Critical Role of Community Colleges and Workforce Investment Board” from the Pew Charitable Trusts will be released today.

Minnesota is pioneering the use of dental therapists in providing expanded dental care. In 2009, the state authorized the use of such therapists, who provide services in nonprofit dental clinics, community health care centers and private dental practices. Community colleges in Minnesota played an important role in developing and implementing the state’s 2009 law that established licensing for two types of dental therapists. A dean at Normandale Community College took a yearlong sabbatical to research dental workforce issues and identified a lack of access to oral health care and the need for more dental providers in the state.

The Pew report said community colleges and WIBs in other states can help with advocacy, which to date has been led mainly by public hospitals and primary care associations.

The effort to use more midlevel providers has been slow and has faced pushback from some dentists and dental associations, who argue that licensing dental therapists would lower the quality of care. But the Pew report cited an Institutes of Medicine report that found no quality concerns with such providers.

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