Oral Health Equity Starts with Accessible Education

  | By Akil Reynolds, State Advocacy Manager, Community Catalyst
Oral Health Equity Starts with Accessible Education

The Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) is the entity that accredits all dental and dental hygiene schools in the U.S. In 2015, they adopted dental therapy education standards. These standards ensure quality and consistency in dental therapy training, while also promoting health equity. As more states authorize dental therapy, many are adopting a CODA-accredited program as the education requirement to practice. Unfortunately, however, others are enacting additional education requirements that can limit access and increase the cost of becoming a dental therapist. Although seemingly well-intentioned, these added rules exacerbate existing oral health inequities.

While CODA requires a minimum of three academic years of training and sets competency requirements, it leaves a number of decisions about dental therapy education to states. For example, some states require dental therapists to hold unnecessary advanced degrees. Others mandate they also become trained as dental hygienists. When states impose unnecessary statutory requirements, they tie the hands of educators, employers and dental therapy students to decide what makes the most sense for them.

Extra requirements harm the mission to expand oral health equity. Here’s why that’s the case:

In a reflection piece following legislative efforts to authorize dental therapists in Oregon, State Senator Laurie Monnes Anderson said, “We must ensure that the approved programs for educating dental therapists are accessible and high quality … using the standards set by the Commission on Dental Accreditation.”

Accessible is an important word here. In fact, it’s so valuable that experts came together to emphasize it in template state legislation known as the National Model Act for Licensing or Certification of Dental Therapists. It outlines how dental therapy policies can be drafted to open pathways for underrepresented and underserved people. Under CODA guidelines, dental therapy can create opportunities for individuals from communities burdened with oral health inequities to efficiently and cost-effectively become the providers their communities need.
Diverse representation in the dental workforce is important to delivering culturally-responsive care. Both of these factors are key components of working towards health equity. Adhering to CODA standards in dental therapy education requirements allows communities to be more responsive to their oral health needs.