By Christie Baca, RDH
As a native New Mexican and a practicing dental hygienist, I'm dedicated to seeing positive changes in my home state. I am from Las Vegas, New Mexico and currently practice in Santa Fe. In my field of work, there are many pressing issues. We are in a dental crisis, and 32 of our 33 of our counties have a shortage of dental providers.
This means that for many, there is a long wait to get in and be seen by their dentist. For others, it means that they have to drive great distances for routine procedures. This is a real and pressing problem; however, it is sadly not the only problem New Mexicans face when it comes to access to dental care.
Dental care is expensive, and for those without insurance, it can seem unattainable. Many dentists do not serve Medicaid patients, so tens of thousands of people—both children and adults—go without regular dental care. Sadly, this also affects our veterans, as the only dental services covered by the VA are those that are service-related injuries. In our practice, I regularly see both Medicaid patients and veterans. I also see many who have waited so long for routine procedures that they are in dire shape by the time they enter our practice.
This situation is one that can have a negative effect on their overall health and lead to devastating problems down the road. Oral health is closely related to overall health, and a lack of dental care can lead to alarming or even life-threatening issues. The lack of dental services and providers statewide is a situation that breaks my heart. I want to do more for my patients, and I want to be a part of the solution to our dental crisis.
Fortunately, if our state decides to pass legislation that would allow for the licensing of dental therapists, I could do just that.
Dental therapists would serve as a mid-level provider under the supervision of a dentist, in much the same fashion as nurse practitioners and physician assistants do for doctors. They would be able to perform routine, preventative procedures. Importantly, they would also accept Medicaid—something that only a slim percentage of our dentists currently do—allowing more patients to receive the care they desperately need.
For me to become a dental therapist, I would need approximately an additional year of education under a high quality education program that has been tried and proven successful in other states practicing under this model. Also, as I am already a collaborative practice hygienist, I already have experience working in general off-site supervision of a supervising dentist providing preventive education, cleanings, scaling and root planing, taking x-rays, and providing local anesthesia. Therefore, being a therapist would simply allow me to extend the reach of my supervising dentist and help me generate more revenue for my dentist's practice, in addition to helping solve our dental crisis.
This is a career pathway for the growing number of hygienists who remain unemployed because of a lack of available jobs. With an additional avenue for dental therapist education, more of my hygienist colleagues will be able to find work, using their education and doing more to serve their communities.
This opportunity is encouraging to me, as I would love to become a dental therapist, further my education, improve my salary, and—most importantly—answer a pressing need in my community. I know that many others, like myself, would welcome this opportunity gladly, as it would allow them to find work and expand their service to their community. This would provide us all with the opportunity to answer the call to serve more patients, while also advancing our careers.
In addition to being a dental hygienist, I'm also a single mother of three girls and the coach of the state champion Santa Fe High School Cheerleading team. As a result, I highly value role models for my girls and for our communities. Dental therapists are role models in their communities, as they provide genuine personal care and have great successful careers.
Our state needs this change, and we can make a difference—a difference that begins with supporting dental therapist legislation. There is undoubtedly a crisis, but there is also a viable solution. We need dental therapists, and I would be proud to have the opportunity to become one. This is an exciting time for our state, and I'm thankful for the legislators who voted in favor of this solution in the recent House Regulatory and Public Affairs Committee. I am excited for the changes this will bring to New Mexico, I look forward to seeing this legislation passed this session, and I am determined to become one of the first dental therapists in New Mexico.