Many Americans suffer from poor oral health, which can have profound negative consequences on overall health and quality of life. The burden of oral disease is unequally distributed, with minorities and low-income people significantly more likely to report oral health problems and trouble accessing oral health care. Many of these disparities are exacerbated by lack of access to dental providers, including non-dentist medical professionals.
Dental provider shortages are severe in North Carolina, which ranks 46th in the number of dentists per capita. Only 16 percent of North Carolina dentists participate in Medicaid – one of the lowest rates in the country.
Dental hygienists are licensed, certified health professionals, trained and qualified to provide many oral health services. Although not a replacement for dentists, they are an important component of the dental health care team. There is reason to believe that increased utilization of dental hygienists can help improve access to care, particularly among the underserved.
Regulation of dental hygienists varies across states. Although some states permit hygienists to practice only in the same physical location as dentists, many have taken steps to improve access to care for low-income people by relaxing this restrictive rule. North Carolina is one of these states. This issue brief provides answers to frequently asked questions regarding the ability of dental hygienists to practice outside the presence of a dentist in certain circumstances in North Carolina. However, the legal provisions addressed in this document likely have similar counterparts in other states.