This article contains information on the role of the dental therapist, treatments they may carry out and how to access a dental therapist as well as what to expect from each visit.

What is a Dental Therapist?

Dental therapists work with children and adolescents until their 18th birthday to keep teeth, gums and mouths healthy.

Dental therapists train for three years at university or a polytechnic and are registered with the Dental Council of New Zealand. The majority of dental therapists are employed by District Health Boards in schools, though a small numbers work in private practice alongside a dentist.

While dental therapists work independently, they will have a professional link to a dentist and refer your child to a dentist when more specialised care is required.

Treatments that can be carried out by a dental therapist include:

  • Advice on oral health and cleaning practices for children and adults
  • Cleaning the teeth
  • Diagnosis of decay (cavities) in baby (deciduous) or permanent (adult) teeth – this may include using x-rays
  • Restoration of decayed adult and baby teeth using fillings
  • Extraction of baby teeth
  • Preventive therapies to keep teeth healthy – for example using special sealants or topical fluoride
  • Referrals to other oral health practitioners for assessment and treatment
  • Keep records of dental treatment

When should my child see a dental therapist?

Dental care is free for children who are residents of New Zealand from birth until their 18th birthday. Most primary school children receive dental care through the school dental service from trained dental therapists.

Most commonly high school children will see their family dentist under the General Dental Benefit scheme. This scheme means the Ministry of Health has contracted with private dentists to provide these services to children in this age group. (Younger children can also see a dentist under this scheme where situations are too complex for a dental therapist to treat).

It is the responsibility of the school dental therapist to transfer children from their services to those of private dentists under the General Dental Benefit.

Make an appointment with a dental therapist:

  • Before your child turns one to get your child started on a good program of healthy teeth for life
  • To obtain advice about good oral hygiene practices
  • To start a treatment program
  • If you child complains of sore teeth
  • You are worried about the state of your child’s teeth

How do I find a dental therapist?

Dental therapists are found in primary and intermediate schools nationwide. There are also some mobile facilities in outlying or remote areas of the country. You can enrol your child at any school dental clinics – but it is suggested you visit the school nearest where you live.

Parents can enroll their child from birth if they wish and dental therapists definitely like to see children before they turn one. Seeing a child before this age gives the dental therapist an opportunity to advise on good oral hygiene and familiarize the child with having their teeth checked. It is never too late to enroll your child for dental care.

You can contact a dental therapist by looking in your local telephone book for your nearest primary school or by asking for advice from your doctor, Plunket nurse, public health or practice nurse.

What will a dental therapist do?

Often for a first visit to a dental therapist, parents will accompany their children. It is important to be positive about the visit to the dental nurse – make your child feel grown up and special! If the child is feeling scared, the examination can be carried out while the child sits on their parent’s lap. Dental therapists are trained in dealing with anxious and frightened children and those who have medical or disability problems. Often at a first visit they will just have a quick look in the child’s mouth and give advice about brushing teeth twice daily, using a fluoride toothpaste. It all depends upon the child’s confidence and cooperation.

The dental therapist will:

  • Take a history of your child’s dental care
  • Examine your child’s teeth, gums and mouth
  • Give advice to parent and children about teeth brushing and mouth care to prevent cavities
  • Develop a treatment plan in consultation with the parent or caregiver if your child’s teeth need work such as fillings
  • Give sufficient information to allow parents be able to make an informed decision before giving consent for work to be carried out
  • Advise you and your child if any more extensive treatment is required – for example referral to a dentist or orthodontist

What can I do to help care for my teeth?

  • Ensure your children see a dental therapist or dentist regularly
  • Teach your children to brush their teeth properly twice daily
  • Buy your children fun toothbrushes and toothpaste to encourage brushing – as going home presents from parties, or as great stocking fillers at Christmas
  • Teach your children to regularly floss their teeth
  • Avoid sugary snacks and drinks
  • Do not give young child undiluted fruit juice in their bottle
  • Encourage children to drink water in preference to soft drinks or fruit juices

Professional organisations, websites & useful articles on dental therapists

The Ministry of Health has an excellent section on dental care for your child

New Zealand Dental Therapists Association

Telephone 09 620 6841

To learn more about the role of the Dentist or Orthodontist visit our Kiwi Families articles in this section.

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