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Special Assistants Making Inroads in Dentistry
Date:2/25/2011

By Dennis Thompson
HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, Feb. 25 (HealthDay News) -- Many people have grown accustomed to seeing a physician assistant for minor ailments when their family doctor can't fit them in.

Now dentistry is creating a similar specialty -- a dental therapist who could perform basic dental procedures while freeing up full-fledged dentists to do more complex and invasive procedures, such as extractions and oral surgery.

Not everyone, though, thinks it's the best way to proceed.

Two states, Alaska and Minnesota, currently allow dental therapists to provide oral care, according to the American Dental Association. Minnesota was the first to license dental therapists, and the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry has become the first college in the nation to offer a dental therapy track.

"We're only in our second class," said Dr. Patrick Lloyd, dean of Minnesota's dentistry school, noting that 33 people applied for 10 slots in the most recent class. "We're really proud to be the first dental school in the country to have an approved dental therapy program."

Dental therapists receive two to three years of training in dental procedures. In Minnesota, they study alongside people who are training to become full-fledged dentists, Lloyd said.

"They use the same facilities and the same laboratories and are educated side-by-side to the same standards and level of competency," the dean said. "The idea is that if they are educated together and learn together, they can better work together."

By the end of the program, a dental therapist should be able to work in a dentist's practice performing such procedures as filling cavities and screening for oral cancer. "It's a first-level set of skills we refer to as primary restorative services," Lloyd said.

The concept of the dental therapist is beginning to win backers. A two-year study released in late October and funded by the W.K. Ke
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