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Eric Galatas, Producer
Wednesday, August 30, 2023
Just 49% of Coloradans are able to access the dental care they need, and health advocates say increasing the number of licensed dental therapists — especially in low-income areas, communities of color, and rural parts of the state — could help fill in the gap.
Kyle Piccola, vice president of communications and advocacy for Healthier Colorado, said dental health is directly linked to overall physical and mental health. When people go for days or weeks with pain in their mouth, it can lead to a cascade of negative impacts.
“The data is clear. Likely that person is going to miss work, their emotional well-being is going to go down. If you’re a young person, you’re going to be missing school,” Piccola outlined. “There are huge repercussions to not taking care of your oral health.”
More than one million Coloradans lack access to proper dental care, and there are more than 100 areas across the state designated as experiencing a Dental Care Health Professional Shortage, according to an analysis by KFF. The state would need to add at least 143 practitioners to meet the dental health needs of all Coloradans.
Dental therapists can be licensed in Colorado after three years of instruction. It takes at least eight years to become a dentist.
Piccola pointed out clinics with dental therapists who work under the supervision of a dentist and are trained to provide most common treatments have seen improved outcomes, including lower numbers of tooth extractions.
“School-based dental therapists have been able to cut fillings in half for those kids,” Piccola reported. “In tribes and rural areas, the wait times and the travel times that those people have been experiencing have been significantly reduced.”
Colorado is one of 13 states currently set up to license dental therapists, and Piccola noted the state recently made it easier for people who want to relocate to the Centennial State to bring their credentials along with them.
“Any dental therapist can take any one of the dental therapy programs around the country,” Piccola emphasized. “As long as they meet the education training requirements, then they can go ahead and apply for a license to come and practice here in Colorado as well.”