The Colorado School of Public Health, where I am currently an Associate Clinical Professor, and Kauffman & Associates, Inc and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation recently hosted a one of a kind meeting of Native American tribal leaders to discuss solutions to improve the oral health of American Indians and Alaska Natives.
The event was called “A National Dialogue on Oral Health Needs and Workforce Solutions in Indian Country” and it took place on August 14-16, 2013 at the Center for Native Oral Health Research- Nighthorse Campbell Native Health Building.
This invitation-only gathering brought leaders from across Indian Country together with national and regional thought leaders in dentistry, education, medicine, health policy, and oral health research.
Our shared purpose was to learn and exchange recommendations on how to reduce dental disease and promote workforce solutions to improve the oral health of American Indians and Alaska Natives—a population with more untreated tooth decay and gum disease than any other group.
Huge Need for Dental Care in Native American Populations
The current dental workforce is simply inadequate to treat the huge backlog of dental disease in tribal and urban Indian communities. Native American reservations have about half the dentist-to-patient ratio of the national average. Also, within the Indian Health Service one-fifth of the dental positions are vacant. Dentists are needed but the need could also be filled by training other dental personnel, especially those that come from local tribes who understand their communities.
Dental Therapists Offer a Solution
One focus of this meeting was the dental therapist program pioneered in 2005 by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium in response to the vast need for dental services in rural and remote communities. The program has only been in place for nine years and already therapists are providing routine, regular care to about 40,000 Alaska Natives.
Eight states have legislation pending which seeks to authorize dental therapists and others are studying the model. In nearly 50 countries outside of the U.S., dental therapists have been a key part of providing dental care for many years.
This meeting was a great opportunity for those dedicated to improving oral health and expanding the oral health team in Indian Country to discuss working together to better serve tribal communities in Kansas, New Mexico, Washington, and throughout the nation.
There are good dentists doing everything they can to help. However, the level of disease is overwhelming. We cannot let children and adults on reservations suffer to the point where an easily treatable problem becomes life-threatening. To learn more, a good resource is the W.K. Kellogg Foundation website. They are very big advocates of expanding dental therapy programs.