To continue my support of the expansion of dental therapist training programs, I led a trip in the first week of August to Alaska. The purpose of the trip was for a group of dentists from the lower 48 states and other dignitaries to tour a successful Dental Health Therapist training program.
The trip was sponsored by the W.K Kellogg Foundation, which has been working for many years to improve oral health and extend dental care to the underserved.
The group included several dentists, the President of the National Dental Association, a State Legislator, a health care manager, a VP of the Navajo Nation, among others.
What is the Issue?
Throughout the US, there are simply not enough dental professionals to meet the needs of the population, especially Americans in poor and isolated communities and tribal areas. Native Americans have the highest rates of dental caries, (cavities), gum disease and tooth loss. American Indian preschool children have 3.5 times more cavities.
I have treated many of these children and it is heartbreaking to see how their lives include the pain, discomfort and problems- including problems with eating, sleeping and learning- that often comes with dental decay.
Approximately 50 million people live in areas without enough dentists, according to Health Resources Services Administration. The U.S. government estimates we need more than 9,000 new dental providers to overcome these shortages.
The Dental Therapist Program in Alaska
Dental Health Aide Therapists in rural Alaska provide preventive and basic dental repair services, including cleanings, fillings and simple extractions. Dental therapists come from the villages, are usually sponsored by local tribal health organizations, and after their training, will return to their villages to serve the local population.
The first dental therapists in Alaska were trained in 2003 in New Zealand, where they have had dental therapists since 1921. In 2007, the first Alaska-trained dental therapist students began their training in Anchorage. Five classes of dental therapists have now been through training in Alaska as of August 2013. They now work throughout the state to provide oral health care to Alaska Native populations.
The group that I accompanied to Alaska visited two classes of dental therapists that are currently in training. We visited them in the classroom at the Anchorage training site. We then traveled to Bethel, the largest city in western Alaska, which is accessible only by air and water. It is near the underserved Alaska Native communities and this is where the therapists receive their clinical training.
The students travel with their instructors to villages in the Yukon Kuskokwim delta to provide care to infant, child, adolescent, and adult patients.
There are now over 25 federally certified dental therapists serving over 40,000 Alaska Native people living in rural Alaska. It is a program that I strongly advocate being expanded to the lower 48 states to address the vast underserved dental needs of our country’s Native American people.
The Alaska program was made possible by the support of the Kellog Foundatio and the Rasmusson Foundation, who sponsored the first groups trained in New Zealand. The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium added a new division, the dental health aide therapist, to its Community Health Aide Program. They have made it possible, along with the University of Washington’s Dentex Program, to train dental health therapists in Alaska who then go onto provide quality, routine dental care to people who can’t find or afford dental care in their communities.