Pacific University's Push to Train Dental Therapists Wins Support From Oregon Legislature
Pacific University faculty members and supporters were instrumental in persuading the Oregon Legislature to pass a groundbreaking bill that will create a new classification for dental health providers in the state.
The bill passed by both chambers of the Oregon Legislature in June 2021 permits the practice of dental therapists — a type of provider who can perform basic dental procedures, such as filling a cavity and doing simple extractions, without being certified as a dentist. Dental therapists, who are more highly trained than dental hygienists, are seen as a boon for underserved areas, where few or no dental services are available.
“We know that dental therapists are well-educated and where they practice, access to basic dental care is increased for underserved populations,” said Amy Coplen, director of Pacific University’s School of Dental Hygiene Studies, in which the dental therapy project is housed. “This bill brings us one step closer to ensuring every Oregonian receives high quality oral health care.”
Dental therapists are midlevel dental care providers who work with a dentist in the way that a physician assistant works with a physician. Dental therapists can expand access to dental care for Oregonians by helping dentists to provide more dental care to more people at a lower cost.
Under Coplen, Pacific has been operating a dental therapy pilot program in collaboration with Willamette Dental Group that trains dental therapists under the supervision of licensed dentists.
While the dental therapy proposal was supported by such groups as the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board, it was opposed by some dentists, including two who serve in the state legislature. But in the end, there was no organized opposition to the measure.
The bill was sponsored by Rep. Tawna Sanchez, D-Portland, the only tribal member in the Oregon Legislature. She said the bill would allow tribal members and others in remote areas to have access to dental care. It passed the House and Senate with heavy majorities.
After Gov. Kate Brown signs the bill, Oregon will join 11 other states that have legalized the practice of dental therapy.
Pacific began training dental therapists in 2020 under a pilot project overseen by the Oregon Health Authority and funded by grants from the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Willamette Dental Group and the Ford Family Foundation. In a 2020 study, Pew said a dental therapist in a rural dental practice could provide basic dental services, including placing fillings and extracting teeth, at a considerably lower cost to providers, and at a slightly lower cost to consumers. “The findings suggest that expanded use of these therapists can improve access to oral healthcare ... while keeping costs down,” Pew wrote.
Pacific has seven dental therapist trainees in the first cohort, and a second cohort of 10 more begin training in August.
Until 2025, individuals who trained under an approved dental pilot project will be able to get licensed in Oregon. Following that, programs must be accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation.