Principal author David Nash, a professor of pediatric dentistry at the College of Dentistry at the University of Kentucky, and colleagues reviewed more than 1,100 reports regarding dental therapists and their work in various countries.
In the United States, dental therapists practice in Alaska and Minnesota, but there is movement in other states to use these providers to expand access to needed dental care.
Numerous federal reports, the Institute of Medicine, states, tribes and foundations, such as the Kellogg Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts, recommended exploring dental therapists as a way to solve the current dental access crisis, Nash said.
The report reviewed the history and practice of dental therapists in 54 countries ranging from the United States to the United Kingdom. Five of the top six countries on the Human Development Index -- the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the Netherlands -- employ dental therapists in their oral health workforce, the review found.
Tooth decay is the No. 1 chronic illness for children, more prevalent than asthma. In the United States, close to 50 million people live in areas where they cannot gain easy access to a dentist.
Dental therapists typically provide routine care that includes cleanings, filling cavities, preventive care and extractions of children's teeth, but a few countries are beginning to permit dental therapists to treat adults as well, Nash said.