Oral health care is essential for everyone, especially children and adolescents. But the truth of the matter is that dental health care is not accessible to everyone.

It is vital that dental care evolves with time so that we can extend excellent healthcare to every section of society.

The dental therapist is a relatively new field in dentistry. They, typically work with the uninsured, low-income and underserved population to help them get necessary dental care.

A dental therapist provides preventative and restorative dental care. Their precise role varies and is dependent on the therapist’s education and the various dental regulations and guidelines of each country.

Dental therapists are increasingly becoming important members of the dental team and are likely to be a particularly important component of future NHS dental care.

What is a dental therapist?

Dental therapists are primary oral health care professionals who are trained to perform essential clinical dental treatment and preventive services within a variety of practice settings.

They fill the shortage of dentists, by practicing in areas which are not accessible to private health sector like rural populations, senior care homes, etc. (1)

More dentists are adding dental therapists to the practice team, to handle much of the routine dental work.  It makes providing dental care highly efficient in a timely manner.  (2)

A brief history

The dental therapy profession can be traced back to 1917, when there was a desperate shortage of school service dental officers and the Armed services were recruiting registered dentists for World War I.

In response to this shortage, countries in England trained Dental dressers, who were the first dental therapists in the world. Their duties were based on American hygienists, with the addition of filling cavities and the extraction of teeth in school clinics.

In 1920, New Zealand established a School Dental service and the formal training of dental therapists. As they worked in rural communities, they were the first contact point for patients with dental problems.

This scheme continues today and has been copied by many countries in the world with a rural population.

Who can dental therapists treat?

The dental therapist may treat a wide range of patients who have high treatment needs such as who:

  • Are dentally anxious.
  • Are medically compromised.
  • Are physically disabled.
  • Have learning disabilities.
  • Have high levels of untreated decay.
  • Are unable to access regular dental care in the general dental service.

What are the requirements to become a dental therapist?

Dental therapists carry out a range of clinical tasks and often spend valuable time convincing anxious patients to accept dental treatment. It requires patience, excellent communication, and interpersonal skills.

An empathetic and caring approach is a must, in addition to proficient, highly technical clinical skills. The therapist needs to be confident to work on their own and be able to put their patient’s mind at ease.

Excellent time management and organizational skills are essential, along with attention to health and safety procedures.

What training and development does the dental therapist undergo?

The diploma in dental therapy takes about 27 months, depending on the dental hospital at which you study. Some dental schools offer part-time courses for dental hygienists wishing to qualify as dental therapists.

The subjects, required by you to study to become a dental therapist, are as follows:

  • Dental health education
  • Dental pathology
  • Simple restorative procedures for both deciduous and permanent teeth
  • Extraction of teeth
  • Dental radiography
  • Pharmacology

What does a dental therapist do?

Dental therapists are gradually becoming an essential part of the dental team. They are helping in bridging the gap between inaccessible areas and affordable dental care.

Health education is an integral part of their role, and a dental therapist is responsible for carrying out the following procedures:

  • Intra and extra oral assessment
  • Scaling and polishing
  • Applying materials to teeth such as fluoride and fissure sealants
  • Taking dental radiographs
  • Providing dental health education on a one-to-one basis or as a group
  • Undertaking restorative procedures in both deciduous and permanent teeth
  • Extracting deciduous teeth under local anesthesia infiltration
  • Undertaking pulp therapy treatment of deciduous teeth
  • Placing pre-formed crowns on deciduous teeth
  • Administrating nerve blocks under the supervision of a dentist
  • Providing temporary emergency replacement of crowns and fillings
  • Taking impressions
  • Treating patients under conscious sedation but only if a dentist is present

Take away message

It is a well- known fact that not every section of society has equal access to healthcare, especially dental care. Children suffer disproportionately and most severely from dental diseases.

Dental therapists help in dissipating this gap. They provide treatment in a range of places in the community, such as schools and care homes.

Also, they can provide affordable health care, especially to children and adolescents, lower than the cost of private dental care.

They practice in a team under a dentist’s supervision, to provide a wide range of services.

Though dental therapists face some opposition as a profession, from the organized health sector, they are gradually becoming a vital part of the dental team.

A dental therapist provides preventative & restorative dental care. Their precise role varies and is dependent on the therapist’s education.