Groups seek creation of dental practitioner status

July 15, 2014
Several Kansas groups are pushing for a new level of dental provider they believe could help remedy a severe shortage of dentists across the state.

WICHITA, KAN. (AP)— Several Kansas groups are pushing for a new level of dental provider they believe could help remedy a severe shortage of dentists across the state.

A proposed bill in the last legislative session to create registered dental practitioners, who would rank somewhere between a hygienist and dentist, didn't receive a hearing. Advocates say they will try again, The Wichita Eagle reported.

"Mid-level dental providers are something that could change the workforce in Kansas," said Christie Appelhanz, vice president of public affairs for Kansas Action for Children. "Nurse practitioners and physician's assistants have done that for the medical community, so why shouldn't the dental community have the same option?"

Kansas Action for Children is part of the Kansas Dental Project, which supports dental practitioners — known as dental therapists in some states. Among their roles they would be qualified to perform such procedures as cleanings and extractions under the supervision of a dentist.

Kansas Department of Health and Environment data from January shows 86 of the state's 105 counties qualify as dental health professional shortage areas. Of those, 13 do not have a dentist at all, the Kansas Dental Project said.

The Kansas Dental Association, which is opposed to the mid-level designation, said dental practitioners would face the same barriers that prevent some dentists from practicing in rural areas.

"We believe the best solution to any 'dental desert' or access to care for individuals is to create more dentists and get them in the areas where they need to be," said Kevin Robertson, executive director of the KDA. He said allowing dental practitioners would merely create a two-tiered system of care he doesn't consider appropriate.

There were about 1,450 dentists in Kansas as of 2013, Robertson said.

Since Kansas doesn't have a dental school, it doesn't have the means to grow its own dental workforce, Appelhanz said.

Instead, the state has a deal with Missouri in which it trades designated spots for Kansas students who want to go to dental school at the University of Missouri-Kansas City in exchange for Missouri students being given spots in engineering and architecture programs at Kansas universities. Kansas students get 85 Missouri dental school spots while Missouri students get 481 Kansas spots.

If the state were to allow registered dental practitioners, Wichita State University would likely seek to create a degree program, said Steve Arnold, associate dean and professor in the College of Health Professions at the university.

"I think Wichita State would aggressively pursue the academic program, and it makes a lot of sense to house it here," Arnold said. "Any degree program related to oral health is going to increase providers."

Information from: The Wichita (Kan.) Eagle,