Dental Education graduate helps fill a need

Rachel Wangen, a graduate of two MSU programs, shares how she is helping increase access to oral health care

December 21, 2023 |

Rachel, who received her Dental Hygiene degree and her Advanced Dental Therapy degree - both from Minnesota State University, Mankato - shares what she is up to now along with some of her favorite MSU memories, in this Q&A. 

Professional photo of Rachel Wangen.Not only were you one of just three students in the first cohort of the Advanced Dental Therapy program at Minnesota State Mankato, but the program is just one of a handful in the entire country. What was it like to take such a big leap?

I think it was a wonderful, scary and unknown courageous decision the three of us made. We had trust in Minnesota State Mankato and our instructors. We learned together and paved the way for future advancements of the Advanced Dental Therapy program. Not only is the addition of a dental therapy program beneficial to the University, but it’s also beneficial for the state of Minnesota. There is a lack of dental providers in the state and the addition of a dental therapy program will continue to fill gaps in access to dental care.

What is the difference between a dental hygienist and an advanced dental therapist?

Dental hygienists are preventative care specialists. The role of a dental hygienist in the dental practice is to educate patients about their oral health by providing routine dental care and education on how to prevent cavities, gingivitis and periodontitis or gum disease. Dental therapists are mid-level dental providers similar to physician assistants or nurse practitioners in the medical field. Dental therapists provide routine restorative dental care, such as filling cavities in both adults and children, placing temporary crowns and extracting severely diseased or loose teeth. Both dental hygienists and dental therapists work with a collaborating dentist to determine a plan of care.

What would be helpful to know for others considering becoming an advanced dental therapist?

It is important to know before pursuing a career in dental therapy that dental therapists are required by law to work in health professional shortage areas that serve low-income and underserved populations or have a patient population base where 50% or more of patients seen by the dental therapist are enrolled in a Minnesota Health Care Program, have a medical disability or chronic condition, or have no health coverage and a gross family income under 200% of the federal poverty level.

What are you up to now?

I started with Oz Family Dentistry in the fall of 2022 as a dental hygienist, and after completion of my degree I have been providing care as a dental therapist. Mankato is located in Blue Earth County, which is a designated health professional shortage county.

What are some of your favorite memories as a student at MSU? 

My most memorable experiences throughout dental hygiene and dental therapy school at Minnesota State Mankato would probably have to be all of the wonderful people, patients, friends and instructors I met along the way. I truly met some incredible lifelong friends and inspiring teachers. Both programs were rigorous, and I would not have been able to get through them without the wonderful support system I had. I am very grateful to have met such amazing people throughout my journey.

My most memorable and proudest moment was participating as a member of the student delegation for the American Dental Hygienists’ Association, where I represented dental hygiene students from Minnesota, South Dakota, North Dakota and Wisconsin. I was invited to the American Dental Hygiene Association national conference to be a student member of the house of delegates.

Some of my favorite experiences included Give Kids A Smile, where we provided free care to children. In addition, I enjoyed different outreach opportunities I was given to provide care and gain clinical experience as a student. The different outreach locations consisted of: Open Door Health Center, Mayo Clinic Health System Eastridge and the Harry Meyering Center in Mankato, Apple Tree Dental in Madelia and Hennepin Healthcare and Children’s Dental Services in the Twin Cities area.

All these experiences have prepared me to be a confident and passionate clinician, dental hygienist and dental therapist. I can’t wait to continue to learn and grow in the workforce and will always cherish my memories from Minnesota State Mankato. I am extremely grateful to have had such wonderful opportunities and to have received both my degrees from a wonderful school.