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New kind of dental profession slowly takes root

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A new kind of dental profession is slowly taking root in underserved parts of Minnesota where dentists are scarce.

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Minnesota has licensed 28 dental therapists over the past two years. They perform many basic procedures that previously only a dentist could do. They work in places where dentists won't, or take the place of dentists unwilling to accept Medicaid's low payments, Minnesota Public Radio reported.

Minnesota and Alaska are the only states with dental therapists, and they can't work in Minnesota without a dentist's supervision. That has made it challenging for some to find work. Many dentists opposed the 2009 legislation that created the profession, and some haven't softened on the need for these mid-level practitioners.

The field's pioneers include Christy Jo Fogarty, 43, of Farmington, who holds the second dental therapist license Minnesota issued. She's also the first person in the state certified as an advanced dental therapist, which gives her some freedom to work independently at mobile clinics in schools, Head Start programs and community centers.

"I can do any kind of fillings —that's on children and adults; white fillings, silver fillings. I can do stainless steel crowns — that's both on children and adults. I can do extractions of baby teeth," she said.

Her patients are primarily low-income children and pregnant women who have no dental insurance or get coverage through Medicaid.

So far, safety-net providers have been some of the profession's biggest supporters.

Fogarty's nonprofit employer, Children's Dental Services in Minneapolis, likely would have been forced to cut back on services if dental therapists hadn't come along, Executive Director Sarah Wovcha said. She pays dental therapists about $45 per hour, compared with an average of $75 for a dentist.

"This really has been a lifesaver for us," she said.

Kaitlin Gebhart, 23, of Elkton, S.D., who will graduate next year from the University of Minnesota's dental therapy program, said she assumes she'll find a job, but that it's a little scary to follow such an uncharted career path.

"Is it going to be successful? Are people going to be accepting of this? There's times when you run in to people that aren't accepting of it and you have to learn how to handle it," she said.

Marshall Shragg, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Dentistry, said he believes acceptance will come.

"I would think that within 10 to 20 years that this will be a profession that we look back on and say, 'Didn't we always have this?' because it will be part of a team that is just exactly what we accept and expect," Shragg said.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. 

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