Oral health therapists are practitioners who are dual qualified as a dental therapist and dental hygienist, and can operate within the scope of work of both roles. They provide oral health assessment, diagnosis, treatment, management and preventative services for children and adolescents, and, if educated and trained in a programme of study approved by the DBA, for adults of all ages. Their scope of practice may include restorative and fillings treatment, tooth removal, oral health promotion, periodontal/gum treatment, and other oral care to promote healthy oral behaviours. Oral health therapists may only work within a structured professional relationship with a dentist.45
How are oral health therapists trained?
Completion of an approved programme of study is required in order to register and practise as an oral health therapist in Australia. Currently there are nine approved three-year bachelor degrees, and one approved one-year Graduate Diploma of Dental Therapy, offered by Australian universities which lead to registration as an oral health therapist.46 These programmes incorporate a period of clinical experience, usually in public dental hospitals and university facilities.
What is the assessment process for overseas-trained oral health therapists?
The Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) uses the Australian and New Zealand Standard Classification of Occupations (ANZSCO) to categorise occupations for immigration purposes. Oral health therapist is not included as an occupation in ANZSCO, and therefore overseas-trained oral health therapists seeking to immigrate to Australia must apply for a visa as either a dental hygienist or a dental therapist (both of which are included in ANZSCO).
Dental hygienist and dental therapist are both included on the skilled occupation list and the consolidated sponsored occupation list. This means overseas-trained practitioners with qualifications in dental hygiene and dental therapy can migrate to Australia independently or through sponsored programmes including state and territory, regional and employer sponsored schemes. They are also eligible for temporary migration through the 457 Temporary Work (skilled) visa.
Skills and qualifications of oral health therapists are assessed for two purposes:
For visa grant purposes. This assessment is conducted by Vocational Education Training and Assessment Services (VETASSESS), with skills and qualifications assessed for equivalency to Australian standards. An oral health therapist can elect to be assessed for equivalency in either dental hygiene or dental therapy, not necessarily both.
For registration purposes. To be able to register with the DBA and practise in Australia, the ADC conduct a process which includes an assessment of documents, an English language test (dependent on country of origin), and written and clinical examinations. Only oral health therapists who hold qualifications obtained after at least two years’ full-time study and who held registration or licensure in their country of training or country of residence are able to apply for the ADC assessment. The exception to this is those oral health therapists who are registered to practise in New Zealand – they are eligible to apply for general registration without having completed the ADC assessment (under trans-Tasman mutual recognition).
What issues have stakeholders identified for the oral health therapist workforce?
The following were the primary concerns raised by stakeholders in relation to the oral health therapist workforce:
Funding constraints result in most oral health therapists working in the private sector.
Existing workforce position
The existing workforce position was determined from expert opinion from jurisdictions and the profession. A traffic light approach was used (as described in Appendix D). The oral health therapist existing workforce position was assessed as green – no current perceived shortage.
In 2012, there were 642 practicing oral health therapists who reported their primary role as being a clinician (Table ). In 2012, clinician oral health therapists were:
mostly female (84.3 per cent)
worked part-time (average working hours 33.7 per week)
were relatively young (with only two per cent of practitioners aged over 55 years).
The average age of oral health therapists in 2012 was substantially lower than the average age of dental hygienists and dental therapists (Table 37 and Table 40), which may reflect the recent emergence of the oral health therapist role.
Caution should be taken when comparing the 2011 and 2012 survey results for oral health therapists due to a change in survey methodology. In 2011, dual qualified dental hygienists and dental therapists were classified as oral health therapists. In the 2012 survey, practitioners holding dual qualifications were prompted to identify whether their main area of practice was as a dental hygienist, dental therapist, or oral health therapist, and have been classified accordingly. Future surveys will follow the 2012 methodology, allowing comparisons between 2012 and future years’ results to be made.