You may have heard the joke that asks, “What do you call 32 Kentuckians in a room?” The answer, of course, is, “A full set of teeth.”
It’s a terrible joke but the fact that people in many of our 120 counties don’t have access to oral health care lends credence. There are large areas of our state where dentists don’t find it profitable to practice. Even those on Medicaid, which covers dental work, are often without care due to low reimbursement for dentists.
According to the Health Policy Institute of the American Dental Association, 27 percent of adults avoid smiling due to the condition of their teeth. Thirty-one percent of low income adults experience pain because of their teeth. Eighty-two percent believe good teeth will help people get ahead in life.
A Center for Disease Control study (2018) found 45 percent of Kentucky residents 30 or above had periodontal disease. Gum disease causes tooth loss and is directly implicated as a cause for heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes.
Surprisingly, there’s a simple solution to this problem that benefits all stakeholders: dentists, dental hygienists, citizens, private business and local economies. Simply create a level of mid-level dental providers to provide quality, cost effective, comprehensive oral health care to all residents of Kentucky.
These mid-level dental therapists are not a new concept — they have been used in numerous states for many years and in New Zealand and Australia for a century.
There are inexpensive technologies that can be used by dental therapists to protect teeth, stop cavities and take X-rays. These treatments can be performed by well-trained professionals with supervision and consulting available by dentists.
Just by taking the large group of licensed dental hygienists Kentucky currently has, and providing some supplementary training, we could provide cost-effective, quality oral health care to thousands of people who currently have no access.
It is truly a win-win situation:
— Dentists can discover new business opportunities.
— Training dental therapists will create thousands of jobs.
— Residents will have better oral health and better self-concepts.
— Mid-level care will more efficiently address chronic dental pain.
The good news is that the organization is already in place for you. The Community Catalyst (https://www.communitycatalyst.org/initiatives-and-issues/initiatives/dental-access-project/dental-access-project) joined with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation has already created the Dental Access Project in conjunction with state advocates, coalitions, dental providers, and lawmakers that provides communities with information, funding and sample legislation.
Dental Therapists have already been successfully implemented in Alaska (since 2005), Minnesota (since 2011) and over 50 countries for nearly 100 years. The Dental Access Project has already expanded oral health care in Vermont, Kansas, New Mexico, Ohio and Washington.
I see no reason why Kentucky can’t have mid-level dental care providers. Currently, Kentucky ranks 41st in oral health. Mid-level providers are now working worldwide improving oral health and heading off subsequent illness that stems from poor oral health.
Thankfully, poor oral health is not an intractable problem. Like most issues, politics is the real problem. Dental Associations often oppose mid-level provider legislation although there are certainly many dentists who see the obvious benefits.
Years back I coined the slogan, Kentucky: Backward and Looking Forward to Staying That Way. Hopefully, Gov.Bevin, Sen. Thayer and others in state government will prove me wrong, put Kentuckians first and create mid-level dentistry in Kentucky.
Jerry Richardson is a Georgetown resident.