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oral health specialist

Oral Health Therapist – The A to Z of Allied Health

Everyone needs to access oral health care at some point in their lives, however for one reason or another, many people cannot access traditional dental care when they need it. People living in rural and remote areas are among those who often miss out on essential oral health care. The establishment of the oral health therapist profession (as it is known in Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore) or dental therapy (in the UK, the USA, South Africa, and Canada), has precipitated increased access to basic oral health care for people and communities who would otherwise miss out.


What does an oral health therapist do?

Oral health therapists are part of the group of professions that strive to optimise individual and population-level oral health.

Oral health therapists perform a range of routine dental and oral health services including:

  • Thorough dental examinations for children and adults
  • Diagnosis of tooth decay and gum disease
  • Tooth cleaning, scaling, and polishing
  • Cavity filling
  • Tooth extractions (using local anaesthetic).

Beyond basic dental care, oral therapists can take impressions and x-rays of teeth and jaw, and apply sealants and other therapies to prevent tooth decay and cavities.

Oral health education is yet another part of their role and is part of a strategy to prevent dental disease in children and adults. Oral health therapists not only provide one-to-one education in the clinical setting, but are known to deliver education to primary schools, residential aged care facilities, children’s play groups, and other groups in the community.

Oral health therapists often work as part of a dental team and therefore can promptly refer more complex dental problems to their dentist colleagues and/or other healthcare professionals.


Where do oral health therapists work?

Given the different titles oral health therapists hold and their slight differences in their scopes of practice, it is difficult to quantify all the countries in which they work.

They are certainly well-recognised in Australia, the USA, the UK, Canada, New Zealand, Singapore, and South Africa.

Oral health therapists often work in community settings, providing outreach services for schools and rural and remote communities. They can also work as part of a dental health team in private clinical practice.


Desirable character traits of oral health therapists

Oral health therapists must have excellent hand-eye coordination and dexterity. Because many people are afraid of or anxious about receiving oral health care, oral health therapists need to be able to establish rapport with their clients, and to help them feel at ease. They must have great communication skills more generally, so that they can work well with child and adult clients.

Oral health therapists must be able to work independently, but also as part of a broader team. Time management skills and a respect for confidentiality are a must. A general interest in health, wellbeing, and preventative care is important too.

oral health specialist

What are the professional education and regulatory frameworks for oral health therapists?

A three-year bachelor’s degree with integrated clinical practice training appears to the be standard level of education for oral health therapists internationally, and is the case in Australia, New Zealand, the USA, Singapore, and the UK.

Australian oral health therapists are regulated nationally with the Dental Board of Australia. Oral health therapists in New Zealand are currently regulated under two separate scopes of practice: dental hygienists and dental therapists, and work is underway to change this so that oral health therapists are regulated nationally by the Dental Council of New Zealand.

In the UK, where they are known as dental therapists, these health professionals are regulated by the General Dental Council (a self-regulated organisation). In the USA, the picture is quite different: each state has quite different requirements and regulations for dental therapists. Canadian dental therapists are self-regulated via the Saskatchewan Dental Therapists Association. Oral health therapists in Singapore are self-regulated via the Singapore Dental Council.

Oral health therapist workforce considerations

Although there is still some confusion about the role of oral health therapists in relation to dentists and dental hygienists (stay tuned for an upcoming blog on dental hygienists), they have become increasingly recognised for their pivotal role in making dental care more accessible for disadvantaged and geographically dispersed communities.

The demand for dental care is increasing globally, and while some countries are working to increase access to oral health therapy (e.g., the USA and New Zealand), others (e.g., Canada) appear to be winding back the development oral health therapy as a profession.


Find out more about oral health therapists

Here are some links to websites and resources for and about oral health therapists: