“Every young child should be able to have a good experience when they go to have their oral health needs met,” said Valerie Davidson, Alaska Commissioner for the Health and Human Services.
More than 10 years ago, that same sentiment fueled tribal leaders in Alaska to make Dental Health Aide Therapists (DHATs) a staple in their community. Today, these mid-level dental providers make safe, affordable, high-quality dental care available to more than 40,000 Alaska Native children and families, many of whom were never able to receive regular treatment before. Due to their efforts, some parts of the state, for the first-time are seeing a generation of kids who are cavity-free.
The W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) supports community-led efforts in states and Tribes across the country that help expand and diversify the oral health workforce. Since 2006, with support from WKKF, Rasmuson Foundation and Bethel Community Services Foundation, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium has worked with the University of Washington to educate dental therapists from Alaska, closer to home – ensuring that the dental teams reflect the community they are serving.
Dental therapists tend to be recruited by their home communities. After completing their education, they return to practice in those same communities, which in many cases have few, if any, dentists.
The benefits of dental therapists go beyond improved oral health says Davidson, a former member of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. “It’s another job in the community - not just for the dental therapist - but for dental assistants,” she said.
Dental therapists generate enough revenue to pay for the cost of their training and add two additional members to the existing dental team. They also bring economic benefits to the communities where they work. In rural Alaska, dental therapists bring in $9 million in economic activity per year.
Alaska's program is leading the national movement to expand the dental care workforce using mid-level dental providers like dental therapists. Ninety Tribal governments have officially indicated support of the dental therapist effort. Minnesota, and most recently Maine, authorized mid-levels to practice, and more than a dozen other states are pursuing similar dental workforce models.