Difficulty getting dental care is the norm in much of the United States, especially in rural areas. One problem is that there aren’t enough providers. Mid-level dental providers, or dental therapists, can help fill that gap, but they face resistance from dentists.

Rural America has long struggled to access any type of health care, including dental care. In certain parts of Appalachia, there are only four dentists for every 100,000 people, far lower than the national average of 61 dentists per 100,000 people. Coupled with higher rates of poverty, these rural communities face an uphill battle to achieve good oral health.

Delaying dental care means more than a missed cleaning; it leads to more serious oral and overall health issues — and more intensive care — later on. Adults living in Appalachia have higher rates of oral disease and missing teeth than in other parts of the country.

The lack of dentists, and subsequent poor access to dental care, will only get worse as the current dental workforce heads toward retirement. Rural areas are struggling to recruit and retain dentists. Dental therapists could be part of the solution.

Dental therapists are analogous to physician assistants. They are licensed to do more than a dental hygienist but not as much as a dentist. Working under the supervision of a dentist, dental therapists provide routine preventive and restorative care such as cleanings, fillings, and simple extractions. Their training is rigorous and comprehensive, but shorter than that for dentists, making them a cost-effective solution.

One hurdle dental therapists face is the concern about scope creep — that they will become licensed to provide care that only dentists can do now. The American Medical Association is concerned about scope creep for mid-level medical providers and it’s not surprising that the dental community feels the same.

Dental therapists are not meant to do everything dentists do, but some scope creep is actually ideal: access to dental care will only increase if more providers can offer the same care.

Read the full article about dental therapists by Elsa Pearson at STAT.