Alaska Dental Health Aide Therapist (DHAT) Bonnie Johnson is part of a new wave of front-line dental professionals who are dramatically expanding access to dental care in tribal communities where regular care is out of reach and people are suffering because they haven’t been able to get the dental care they need.
Tooth decay is five times higher among Native American children ages 2 to 4 than the U.S. average. Seventy-two percent of American Indian and Alaska Native children ages 6 to 8 have untreated cavities – more than twice the rate of the general population. What is also becoming clear, however, is that while Native American children suffer a disproportionate share of tooth decay, Native American adults may be worse off. A study on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota found that 84 percent of children and 97 percent of adults had ongoing tooth decay.
In her role, Bonnie Johnson, from Emmonak, Alaska, travels around her community providing dental care to children and families in rural Alaska. Tribal leaders, dentists and community members explain how dental therapists like Bonnie have helped radically improve oral health in their villages while inspiring their community, once known for rampant tooth decay and poor oral health, to strive for a different, healthier future.
“All children should have the opportunity to be healthy regardless of where they live,” said Alice Warner, director of policy with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. “The DHAT program not only provides that chance, but also creates a career pathway for young people from underserved communities, creating a cadre of providers who understand the communities they serve.”
Since 2006, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation has supported the efforts in Alaska to expand access to dental care by adding dental therapists to the dental team. In 2014, there were 27 practicing dental therapists in Alaska serving patients in dental clinics and schools in 81 villages.
Dental therapists are mid-level dental providers who work as part of a dentist-led team. In her role, Bonnie works as an extension of the dentist, providing routine and preventive dental care to Alaska Natives in remote villages scattered across Alaska. In the past 10 years, Johnson, one of the few dental therapists in the U.S., and her peers have expanded access to dental care for more than 40,000 Alaska Natives.
Alaska’s dental therapist program is showing others the way forward. Ninety tribal governments have stated their support for the dental therapist movement. Tribal communities and more than a dozen states are exploring dental therapists as a way to reduce oral health disparities and improve the health futures of the children and families that need it most.