When People’s Center Health Services in Minneapolis bought a little dental practice on Minnehaha Avenue in 2010, Peggy Metzer, the center’s CEO, didn’t think of herself as a trailblazer.
But today she has found herself thrust into the national spotlight on health reform as an advocate for using an innovative profession called dental therapists to improve patients’ health and reduce medical costs.
People’s Center serves mostly low-income patients, including many refugees and immigrants, and its medical clinic was bursting at the seams with people who also needed dental care.
Metzer hired the clinic’s first dental therapist last year, added a second one six months ago and is so pleased with the results she expects to have a third on board within a year.
“I’d hire more if they were available,” she said last week, shortly before hopping a plane to Washington, D.C., for a second trip to share her story with a national audience.
Dental therapists span the divide between the hygienist and the dentist, in much the same way a nurse practitioner or physician assistant works in a medical setting.
They work under a dentist’s supervision and are trained to fill cavities, place crowns, give local anesthesia and, in some cases, pull teeth.
Over the past two years, Minnesota has licensed 28 dental therapists.
But they’re controversial, with some professional dentists’ organizations raising concerns. Minnesota and Alaska are the only states to license dental therapists, but several others are considering legislation to allow the new field. National health reform organizations, including the Pew Charitable Trusts, have launched campaigns to show how dental therapists can take pressure off primary care doctors and dentists, particularly as the Affordable Care Act rolls out and new patients seek care.
Metzer has become a leading voice.
“What the legislators and policymakers ultimately want to know is: How is this going to impact health care?’’ she said. “Is this going to lower the overall cost over time? And we can say, ‘Yes, it is.’ ”