Published September 22, 2019
TEMECULA, Calif. — On Thursday the National Indian Health Board (NIHB) concluded its annual National Tribal Health Conference by celebrating 15 years of the Dental Health Aide Therapy (DHAT) program in Alaska Native communities.
Nationwide, one dentist serves about 1,500 people. But, in Indian Country, there is only one dentist for every 2,800 people. Dental Therapists are mid-level oral health providers trained and licensed to perform preventative and routine oral health care procedures. These integral providers have been operating in Alaska Native communities under the Community Health Aide Program (CHAP) since 2004.
“The National Indian Health Board is pleased to celebrate the Dental Health Aide Therapy program at our national conference. These innovative oral health providers have been practicing in Alaska Native communities for 15 years and have changed the landscape of care in Alaska,” said NIHB Chair and Great Plains Area Representative Victoria Kitcheyan. “Oral health is often overlooked or there is an undesirable connotation attached to it. But, in Alaska, dental therapists are a proven success and have helped fill a gap in oral health access by providing routine preventative and restorative oral health services, and it has greatly changed lives, particularly for Alaska Native youth.”
To continue to highlight the DHAT work, NIHB hosted a panel discussion at its conference that focused on the journey and success of dental therapy in Alaska and nationwide, and the positive impact dental therapists have made in Indian Country.
Dr. Mary Williard
“After just 15 years of dental therapy in Alaska our communities are experiencing measurable improvements in oral health. Dental therapy is giving Alaska native people something to smile about and proving how Tribal sovereignty is the power to do better,” said Dr. Mary Williard, a dentist and Director for the Department of Oral Health Promotion at the Alaska Native Health Consortium.
The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC) pioneered the dental therapist programs within the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation. In many Alaska Native villages, access to dentists or any oral health program is limited. Teeth extraction was a common practice, even with children.
Other panelists were Dane Lenaker who is the Senior Clinical Director with the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium and Caroline Brunton who is a Program Officer for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The Kellogg Foundation has a helpful resource guide at: http://dentaltherapyresourceguide.wkkf.org/
Today, Tribes nationwide have long been looking at options to bring the dental therapy workforce model to their communities to improve oral health outcomes in Tribal communities. The Swinomish Tribe in Washington State developed its own licensing standards and hired a dental therapist in 2016. Tribes in Oregon are operating pilot projects to gather data on the model’s potential statewide. In April 2018, Arizona passed a law to allow dental therapists to pract