Patients reap the benefits of dental therapy

'I couldn't tell the difference from a regular dentist,' says satisfied patient

By KEVYN BURGER | October 15, 2019

St. Paul, Minn. — Through an interpreter, dental therapist Katy Leiviska explains to Sana Tamang how her 4-year-old son, Ryan, would benefit from the application of dental sealants.

“We usually don’t do this with baby teeth, but he has some deep grooves and pits in his teeth, see here?” says Leiviska, showing Tamang the boy’s back teeth illuminated by the bright light hovering over him. “If we seal them, it prevents decay.”

When the interpreter asks Tamang in her native Nepali language if she wants the protective treatment for her son, Tamang nods vigorously.

Leiviska picks up her tools and begins, cheerfully singing, “Paint, paint, paint your teeth,” to the tune of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”

In her role as a dental therapist at the two HealthPartners clinics in St. Paul, Leiviska provides basic exams and preventative treatments to patients with state-based insurance.

“I see kids from immigrant families who have never had access to dental care. Unless something hurt, they didn’t go in,” she says.

“When we see the kids, we can teach the whole family about taking care of their teeth and encourage them to come in for regular appointments. We don’t want them to be afraid of the dentist,” she adds.

Leiviska, an advanced dental therapist, is also experienced at filling teeth for both children and adults, a task that would have required a dentist prior to the addition of dental therapists to the oral health team.

Better option than ER

When Paul DeLisi settled into Leiviska’s chair on a cool fall morning, he had two cavities. An exam and X-ray in June had identified the decay.

DeLisi had procrastinated in scheduling an appointment when his situation became urgent. A sudden pain flare-up left his teeth sensitive to hot and cold, causing him discomfort.

“I called yesterday, and they told me they could get me in this morning,” says DeLisi, 42, of suburban St. Paul. There would have been a wait to see a dentist, but Leiviska had an opening.

“I’ve never heard of dental therapists, but what she does made perfect sense when she explained it,” he says.

Leiviska used anesthetic injections to numb DeLisi’s mouth, then filled his two molars.

“This is the sort of problem that creates pain, and we know some people go to the emergency room for relief,” she says. “The clinic is a much better option. The ER can’t do anything for them but prescribe antibiotics, and it runs up the bill for the state.”

With his mouth still numb, DeLisi gives Leiviska a crooked smile as he thanks her for her expertise and relieving his toothache.

“I couldn’t tell the difference from a regular dentist. Since she specializes in fillings, I’d say she’s an artist,” he says. “This was awesome.”

Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.