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.
This profession differs from stand-alone dental hygienists and dental therapists. Oral health therapists have usually completed a bachelor’s degree qualification and have more knowledge of an integrated approach to care for patients. They work as part of a dental team alongside dental hygienists, dental therapists, dentist, and dental specialists.
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.
They 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 scaling, debridement and polishing
- Cavity filling
- Tooth extractions (using local anaesthetic).
Beyond basic dental care, they can take impressions and x-rays of teeth and jaw, and apply sealants and other preventive 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. They 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.
Like all oral health practitioners, they will 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, New Zealand, and Singapore.
They 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
People working in this profession must have excellent hand-eye coordination and dexterity. Because many people are afraid of or anxious about receiving oral health care, they need to be able to establish rapport with their patients, 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 patients.
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.
Professional education and regulatory frameworks
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, and Singapore. Oral Health Therapists study and graduate with a Diploma in Oral Health Therapy from Nanyang Polytechnic in Singapore.
Australian oral health therapists are regulated nationally with the Dental Board of Australia.
Oral health therapists in New Zealand regulated nationally with the Dental Council of New Zealand.
In the UK, there is currently no title of oral health therapist, however, dental therapists and dental hygienists 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 and dental hygienists. Like the UK, the USA currently does not hold a professional title of oral health therapist.
Canadian dental therapists and dental hygienists are self-regulated via their respective state. Like the UK and the USA, there is currently no professional title of oral health therapist in Canada.
Oral health therapists in Singapore are self-regulated via the Singapore Dental Council.
Although there is still some confusion about the role of this profession in relation to dentists, dental hygienists, (stay tuned for an upcoming blog on dental hygienists) and dental therapists, 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
Here are some links to relevant websites and resources:
- National Partnership for Dental Therapy | USA
- Australian Dental and Oral Health Therapists’ Association
- Dental Board of Australia
- The British Association of Dental Therapists
- Association for Oral Health Therapists | Singapore
- Singapore Dental Council
- Saskatchewan Dental Therapists Association
- South African Dental Therapy Association