Lack of access to affordable dental care is a serious problem for millions of Americans. On Nov. 15-16, the PBS NewsHour aired a two-part series detailing the nation’s dental care access crisis, as well as a potential solution that is bringing everyday dental care to thousands of children and families in remote villages in Alaska.
This approach, which relies on a new kind of mid-level provider working as part of a dentist-led team to bring routine dental to underserved communities, could serve as a model for other states and tribes. In fact, more than 15 states are exploring whether to add these new providers – often called dental therapists or registered or licensed dental practitioners – to their dental care workforces. Five states – Kansas, New Mexico, Ohio, Vermont and Washington – are working with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
The NewsHour series, which also features an online photo essay, a patient story and an interview with a dental therapy student in Alaska, vividly portrays the difficulties that so many people experience trying to get dental care when they need it. Lack of coverage, high out-of-pocket costs and shortages of dentists in many communities are all part of the problem.
But the program also shows the impact that Alaska’s new providers, who started practicing in 2006, are having. In the tiny village of Toksook Bay, accessible only by air and sea, parents tell stories of children growing up without cavities – a startling departure from previous generations whose members sometimes graduated high school with full sets of dentures.
In a live, online chat of dental care experts that aired Nov. 18, Mary Willard, DDS, who directs the Dental Health Aide Therapist Program in Alaska, stated that “Alaska’s experience offers a real opportunity for other states struggling with dental care shortages to address their problems in a sensible, cost-effective way.”