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Dental therapists are making a significant difference in the oral health of Alaska Native children

Dana Linnane, W.K. Kellogg Foundation

Bethel, Alaska – Children had lower rates of tooth extractions and more preventive care in Alaska Native communities served frequently by Dental Health Aide Therapists (DHATs) than residents in communities not receiving any DHAT services, according to a new study released by the University of Washington. 

The study, led by Donald Chi, DDS, PhD at the University of Washington and funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, Rasmuson Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, presents an analysis of patients in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation (YKHC), from 2006 to 2015. YKHC serves 25,000 Alaska Natives representing 58 federally-recognized tribes.

Using patient records and Medicaid claims data, researchers counted the total number of dental therapist treatment days provided in each community. They then compared communities with no dental therapist treatment days to those with the highest number of treatment days and found the following: for children, high exposure to dental therapists was associated with fewer extractions, less use of general anesthesia and more preventive visits. 

Adults in these communities with the highest DHAT visit days had fewer extractions and more preventive care visits. 

While U.S. studies to date of dental therapists have examined care quality and patient access, this is the first known study to look at long-term outcomes of communities served by dental therapists.

“It’s been more than a decade since tribal communities approached the foundation with their plans for how to improve oral health care for their children,” said La June Montgomery Tabron, president and CEO of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. “Today, we know these proven, tangible and dramatic shifts in improved access and care for children of color is a game changer as we seek to advance racial equity and tackle health disparities for children of color.”

In the U.S., dental therapists were first employed in Alaska in 2005 to serve Alaska Native communities, have been authorized in Minnesota, Maine and Vermont, and are being used to care for Native American tribes in Washington and Oregon.  In June, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium graduated its first student to begin practicing in the lower 48.  Several other states, including Arizona, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Mexico, North Dakota and Ohio are exploring the potential for dental therapists to significantly improve oral health care for many more children and communities.

“Alaska has proudly put the DHAT program on the national map. It is a model of healthcare that makes an immediate difference in the lives of people who would otherwise have limited to no access to dental care,” said Diane Kaplan, president & CEO, of Rasmuson Foundation. “This study showcases what we have seen for years, Dental Health Aide Therapists are improving the health outcomes of Alaskans.”

Dental therapists are highly-trained, mid-level providers. They work under the supervision of a dentist and offer routine restorative and preventive services, like dental exams, providing fillings, cleaning teeth, placing sealants and performing simple tooth extractions. They are a cost-effective way to increase access to critically-needed dental care in communities and tribal nations across the country, while broadening career pathways to support a robust economy.

For more information about the study, please visit http://faculty.washington.edu/dchi/files/DHATFinalReport.pdf


About the W.K. Kellogg Foundation
The W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF), founded in 1930 as an independent, private foundation by breakfast cereal pioneer, Will Keith Kellogg, is among the largest philanthropic foundations in the United States. Guided by the belief that all children should have an equal opportunity to thrive, WKKF works with communities to create conditions for vulnerable children so they can realize their full potential in school, work and life.

The Kellogg Foundation is based in Battle Creek, Michigan, and works throughout the United States and internationally, as well as with sovereign tribes. Special emphasis is paid to priority places where there are high concentrations of poverty and where children face significant barriers to success. WKKF priority places in the U.S. are in Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico and New Orleans; and internationally, are in Mexico and Haiti. 

About Rasmuson Foundation
Jenny Rasmuson with her son, Elmer, created the Rasmuson Foundation in May 1955 to honor her late husband E.A. Rasmuson. The Foundation is a catalyst to promote a better life for all Alaskans.

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