Paving the Way for Dental Therapist Legislation



Hi, Scott here! If you haven’t heard of a Dental Therapist, don’t worry, we hadn’t heard the term either when our clients at Healthier Colorado asked us to dig into rural and low-income Coloradans’ experiences with dentists and dental care. CRA jumped at the chance to work with Healthier Colorado on this project.

Personally, I love going to the dentist and have tried to pass this along to my 8-year-old daughter – with some success. Living in Denver my relatively easy access to dental care – and almost certain acceptance of my family’s dental insurance – is not what all Colorado residents experience.

Healthier Colorado saw an opportunity to execute on its mission that “every Coloradan should have a fair chance at living a healthy life” through increased access to dental care. Their goal was to ultimately see Colorado allow the licensing of dental therapists. A dental therapist fills a role similar to a P.A. in a physician’s office. The dental therapist frees up the dentist to complete more complex procedures while they provide preventative and routine restorative care (filling cavities, placing temporary crowns, extracting teeth, etc.) – at a fraction of the cost. They also increase dental capacity in an office and in a community, which can be especially important in rural parts of the state.

Because allowing for this new role would create a new category of dental care provider, Healthier Colorado wanted to understand how residents of Colorado would feel about visiting a dental therapist. Would they be willing to receive care from a dental therapist? What benefits would they see for themselves, their family, and their community? What information did they need to feel comfortable visiting a dental therapist for care, if available?

We conducted a series of six online focus groups with low-income and remote-living participants. Online groups made this project possible as costs to travel to different parts of the state would have made it prohibitively expensive.

Through our research, we clearly heard the need for this new provider and understood the information that community members required to be comfortable supporting the licensing of this new role. Our recommendations focused on messaging designed to increase community support for – and likelihood to seek care from – dental therapists were they to become licensed in Colorado.

Importantly, our work also provided Healthier Colorado and, in turn, legislative staff and elected officials, with the stories of their constituents and their need for increased access to affordable dental care. Our findings report was filled with both recommendations and the stories of community members. It made the challenges – and the proposed solution – come alive in ways a survey-based report or research project could not.

Using our recommendations and the stories of Coloradans from across the state, Healthier Colorado worked to generate support for SB 22-219, which was signed into law by Governor Jared Polis in June 2022. This will allow for the licensure and regulation of dental therapists in Colorado.

We always say the method travels. Here our qualitative research methods – and our almost 20 years of experience engaging audiences across Colorado, the nation, and the world – helped our partners achieve their legislative goals and improved access to dental care for Coloradans. We confidently applied our experience to a subject that was new to both principal researchers at Consumer Research Associates in helping to, we feel, positively affect the health care access and outcomes for Coloradans.