AUGUSTA, Maine — It can be hard to keep smiles healthy in rural areas, where dentists are few and far between and residents often are poor and lack dental coverage. Efforts to remedy the problem have produced varying degrees of success.
The biggest obstacle? Dentists.
Dozens of countries, such as New Zealand, use “dental therapists” — a step below a dentist, similar to a physician’s assistant or a nurse practitioner — to bring basic dental care to remote areas, often tribal reservations. But in the U.S., dentists and their powerful lobby have battled legislatures for years on the drive to allow therapists to practice.
Therapists can fill teeth, attach temporary crowns, and extract loose or diseased teeth, leaving more complicated procedures like root canals and reconstruction to dentists. But many dentists argue therapists lack the education and experience needed even to pull teeth.