The W.K. Kellogg Foundation congratulates the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC) and the hardworking and dedicated dental health aide therapists (DHAT) as they commemorate 10 years of improving oral health for Alaska Native people.
In 2003, Alaska’s tribal leaders, frustrated with the abysmal oral health conditions and lack of dental care in their communities, came together to create a different health future for their people. They exercised their rights as sovereign nations and brought DHATs to Alaska, despite what they knew would be an intense fight with organized dentistry. In 2005, the first class of DHATs returned home from an intensive training program in New Zealand, bringing with them skills that would help dramatically improve access to regular dental care for Alaska Natives. It was a victory for the entire state and an inspiration to the community, and the nation.
Dental disease has long been a serious public health problem among Alaska Native children, whose rates of tooth decay are 2.5 times the national average. With an overwhelming need to improve oral health in the community and build a sustainable dental workforce in Alaska, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, in partnership with the University of Washington’s MEDEX Northwest Physician Assistant Training Program, opened DENTEX in 2007, the first dental therapist center in the United States.
Since then, more than 40,000 Alaska Natives across 81 communities have gained access to dental care and some parts of the state are now seeing their first-generation of cavity-free children. Now, Alaska’s dental therapist program, which has served Alaska Natives for the last decade, is leading the national movement to expand the dental care workforce using mid-level dental providers like dental therapists.
Alaska’s success has piqued the interest of more than 15 states looking for ways to relieve their dental care shortage and increase access to dental care. Maine, a state with a high rural population and growing dentist shortage areas, recently passed legislation allowing mid-level dental providers to practice in the state. In Minnesota, where dental therapists have been practicing since 2011, preventive dental care is now much easier to access for the people who need it most: children and those who can’t afford care. And other Tribal and state coalitions in places such as Vermont, Kansas, Ohio, Washington and New Mexico are looking at how they could bring mid-level dental providers to the state to also increase access to regular dental care.
Building for the next decade
June 2014 marks the 10 year anniversary of dental therapists practicing in Alaska. On June 6, ANTHC honored five new graduates of the DENTEX training program moving on to provide care to villages in Alaska and six students transitioning into their final year of the DHAT training program. The graduates are:
- Angelica Afcan, Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation
- Renee Cheemuk, Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation
- Lauren Reed, Maniilaq Association
- Samantha Brown, Maniilaq Association
- Shawn Martin, Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation
Following the graduation ceremony, they will begin working directly with a supervising dentist until that dentist certifies that they are performing the skills in their scope of practice at an expert level. Once certified, dental therapists are fully prepared to go back to their communities and provide high quality care as a member of their dental team.