BACKGROUND: Population health needs are changing. The levels of dental caries and periodontal disease across the population as a whole is falling. The proportion of adults with a functional dentition in many developed countries has increased substantially and edentulous rates have dropped to some of their lowest levels. Despite this, a pronounced social gradient still exists, many adults do not attend dental services regularly and disease in young children remains intransigent amongst the poorest. New challenges are emerging too as the growing number of older people, above sixty-five years of age, retain their teeth.
METHODS: Ensuring "the right number of people with the right skills are in the right place at the right time to provide the right services to the right people" is critical for future dental service provision, both to meet the new challenges ahead and to ensure future services are cost-effective, efficient and reduce health-inequalities. Greater use of "skill-mix" models could have a substantial role in the future, as dentistry moves from a "cure" to a "care" culture.
DISCUSSION: The provision of dental services in many countries currently adopts a "one-size-fits-all", where the dentist is the main care-giver and the emphasis is on intervention. As needs change in the future, the whole of the dental team should be utilised to deliver primary, secondary and tertiary prevention in an integrated model. Growing evidence suggests that other members of the dental team are effective in providing care, but introducing this paradigm shift is not without its challenges. The provision of incentives within funding systems and social acceptability are amongst the key determinants in producing a service that is responsive to need, improves access and delivers equity.