Better Dental Care Access for Native Americans in Washington State

Published September 8, 2017

COLVILLE INDIAN RESERVATION – According to a study conducted by the Aspen Institute, the lack of dental care access for Native Americans is becoming a real problem because of a shortage of dentists. For instance, in the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington, the dentist to population ratio is 1:6,000, and the residents can only avail of emergency care but not preventive care. However, due to the perseverance of the Swinomish Tribe and Senator John McCoy, Native Americans in Washington can expect things to change for the better.

New Law Authorizing the Services of Dental Health Therapists

On February 22, 2017, Governor Jay Inslee enacted into law a bill that permits the training and hiring of dental health therapistsfor the provision of basic dental care at dental clinics in Indian Country in Washington. Authored by McCoy, the bill also allows the use of Medicaid and other forms of government funding for the services provided by the therapists. Washington is the sixth state with a law authorizing the services of dental therapists, with the other five being Alaska, Minnesota, Vermont, Maine, and Oregon.

The Purpose of Dental Health Therapists

Dental health therapists are the dental version of nurse practitioners. They are trained to perform a wide range of dental tasks, including cleaning, applying fillings, performing simple extractions, fitting crowns, and providing oral health education. By providing preventive and basic care, they enable dentists to spend more time performing complicated dental care procedures. The training and certification of a dental health therapist can be completed in two or three years, which is much faster than the eight years required for a dentist. Therefore, the use of dental health therapists is the ideal solution for the severe lack of dental care access in the Indian Country.

Proven Results with Dental Therapists

According to a report published in 2014, almost one out of three people in Minnesota who set an appointment with a dentistexperienced shorter wait times following the employment of a dental health therapist. About 80 percent of patients said that they managed to see a dental health therapist for the first time within a month. Also, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium reported that 45,000 Alaska natives receive dental health care from dental health therapists, and they had the lowest cavity rate in the world before the emergence of air travel and imported processed food.

With the passing of the new law on the use of dental health therapists, Native Americans in Washington can look forward to quicker and easier access to dental care. If the program continues to show success, it is likely that it will be adopted by other states as well.

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