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Opinion | Michigan, invest in dental therapy programs to diversify oral-health workforce

If you've been to the dentist lately, consider yourself lucky.

More than 1.5 million Michiganders live in an area with a dental care shortage. This lack of access is particularly prevalent in rural areas, like my hometown in West Branch and in the Upper Peninsula, where I am a proud member of the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians and where I plan to move to as soon as possible. 

State leaders recognized this need for expanded access, and in 2018, then-Gov. Rick Snyder signed bipartisan legislation authorizing dental therapists to work in Michigan.

Dana Obey headshot
Dana Obey is a dental therapy student at Skagit Valley College in Washington and the recipient of a dental therapy scholarship from the Michigan Primary Care Association.

Dental therapists are licensed mid-level providers who work under the supervision of a dentist. They are trained to provide emergency dental care, routine dental exams, and preventive care, such as sealants and fillings, in various settings. Their role is crucial in extending care to communities experiencing extreme dental shortages.

The success of dental therapy programs in Native American tribes, particularly in Alaska, is a testament to their effectiveness. Native leaders initiated these programs to address their people's lack of consistent care. A 2018 study revealed that tribal communities in Alaska with access to dental therapists receive more preventative care and require fewer tooth extractions. 

This success story should serve as a compelling argument for implementing educational pathways for dental therapy in Michigan. But unfortunately, no such programs currently exist in the state. 

Michigan's lack of dental therapy programs has been a major hurdle. In fact, I had to move across the country to participate in a dental therapy program at Skagit Valley College in Washington. 

The lack of dental therapy programs is frustrating because dental therapy is a proven, evidence-based strategy for building a more representative dental workforce. Since dental therapists can be trained in far less time and at less cost than a dentist, community colleges are in an ideal position to offer programs that train a culturally and geographically diverse dental therapy workforce, one that's representative of the communities most in need of care. This not only increases access to care in traditionally underserved communities but also stimulates the local economy by creating well-paid job opportunities. It's a win-win situation for both health care and the economy.

For the profession to truly grow and prosper, Michigan's higher education community needs to join the party and offer varied and accessible programming for aspiring dental therapists at home—at both community colleges and universities. Despite the finalization of regulations for authorization in 2021, there are no dental therapists currently practicing in the state. This situation needs urgent attention. 

As a single mother, and as someone who was born into poverty, my cross-country move has not always been easy. But I’m proud of the chances I’ve taken to make this dream a reality, and I hope to see more people from similar backgrounds enter the dental therapy field.  

My tentative graduation month is this December, and I will return to Michigan and become the first dental therapist in our state (unless one moves there from another state first!) But Michigan needs a more robust and diverse dental therapy workforce to ensure everyone has access to quality, cost-effective dental care — and we must first invest in our educational pipeline to make that goal a reality. 

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