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A dental therapist is a dental professional who performs dental services, but who is not licensed or trained as a doctor of dentistry. Dental therapists typically perform the same services as a dentist would, including tooth cleaning, drilling, and cavity filling. Dental therapy is a controversial practice in countries like the United States and parts of Western Europe, where medically trained dentists are plentiful. In other parts of the world, however, a dental therapist can be a much-needed solution to what is otherwise a profound lack of dental care.
The practice of dental therapy emerged largely as a solution to crisis-level dental shortages in many of the world’s most remote locations. Although many dentists will travel on short-term medical missions to remote areas to provide one-time dental care and check-ups, most dentists do not want to relocate permanently to those areas. Training local residents to perform dental therapist jobs was widely thought to be a better long-term solution.
Traditional dental school requires an undergraduate degree, usually in biology or chemistry, as well as four years of dental school. Graduates are doctors of dentistry, and are typically licensed by a state or national government to provide dental services. Dentistry is a highly regulated profession, which means that dentists must pass an exam and maintain regular training in order to stay licensed.
In contrast, there are often only a few, if any, fixed dental therapist requirements. Many dental therapist training programs have no educational prerequisites, and while some programs are facilitated and taught by licensed dentists, not all are. The main goal of a dental therapy program is to train people to perform basic dental procedures and to provide community advice on dental hygiene and care. Most dental therapists focus their attention on children.
Dental therapy training programs were first established in rural communities that otherwise lacked dental care. The idea was to train local residents to care for themselves, and to promote community health and economic stability. Increasingly, dental therapy programs have grown to include any range of applicants, and the dental therapist job description has expanded.
While dental therapists are still most common in rural, under-served areas, they are also emerging in mainstream urban and suburban communities, often as a cost-effective alternative to oral care. Dental therapists in these settings often operate dental clinics that provide the same dental services that one would find in any dental office. Sometimes they also travel to schools and community events to teach children about good dental care habits.
Many countries have laws tightly regulating the practice of dentistry. Because much of what a dental therapist does usually amounts to dentistry as it is described in statutes and laws, dental therapists in some jurisdictions have come under fire for practicing dentistry without a license. While the practice of dental therapy is condoned and encouraged in some communities, it is outlawed and punished with legal consequences in others. Some countries, states, and provinces have responded to the rise in dental therapist services by creating licensing schemes and providing for limited recognition of dental therapy as a legitimate profession, but not all have.