Health

Does dental profession need something like a nurse practitioner?

Paulette Glasser, a dental hygienist, at work in Burlington in 2015. Joanne Rathe / Boston Globe

They look so collegial, the dental hygienist who often finds the cavities and the dentist who always fills them. But on Beacon Hill, these professionals, who typically work side-by-side, drill-by-pick, find themselves pitted against each other in a high-stakes battle over better access and higher quality oral care for the poor.

Advocates for hygienists say that poor and disabled people, often minority children, struggle to find good dental care because of a shortage of dentists willing to serve them. The group is pushing for a new class of advanced hygienists, sort of nurse practitioners for the mouth, who could offer the kind of help that they say these patients aren’t getting.

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Traditional dentists, though, said such a role would endanger rather than help the poor by putting them in the hands of people who lack proper training and skills.

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