Dental health aide therapist student Jana Schuerch cares for a patient in Tuntutuliak. - Courtesy Photo, Sarah Shottstall

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Dental health aide therapist students, left, Jana Schuerch, of Kiana, and Kate Kohl, of Bethel, and recently worked in Tuntutuliak. - Courtesy Photo, Sarah Shottstall

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Dental health aides make impact around state

July 11th, 2011 | Barbro Rakos Print this article   Email this article  

It's been less than 10 years since Alaska's dental health aide initiative was launched to train and place dental health aide therapists (DHAT) in rural Alaska, and three years since the program graduated its first students. It was an innovative project, the nation's first attempt at developing a dental therapist program of this kind. According to a recent study conducted by Research Triangle Institute, Alaska's dental therapists are now providing safe, competent and appropriate care in their scope of practice.

Nearly two dozen DHATs are currently working around Alaska. They impact 35,000 people in rural Alaska who now have access to a dedicated oral health provider. That's critical care for Alaska Natives, who have long struggled with dental disease; in fact, Alaska Native children still have more than two times the national rate of tooth decay. Communities that once relied on itinerant dental care or had none at all now receive routine restorative and preventive services by local providers.

The initiative spearheaded by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC) is leading Alaska's rural communities toward better oral health, while also making a significant socio-economic impact because of the new health care provider jobs it's produced.

The two-year academic and hands-on education includes training in dental disease prevention and basic dental treatment skills. When finished, many DHATs return to serve their home villages. That kind of familiarity helps bring cultural competence to the dental care provided.

"The patients showed appreciation for all the work we'd provided, which gave me a boost of confidence as a provider of my people," explained Trisha Patton, a second-year DHAT student from Napakiak, who recently completed a week of work and training in a Yukon Delta village.

After training, most dental therapists work in regional and sub-regional clinics providing local care, as well as making regular trips to surrounding communities. That means a crucial part of DHAT training includes several weeks of village travel. In these weeks, students like Patton work with a dentist to treat residents in pain, while also providing preventive services and measures to stem the tide of decay. Patton's recent village-based work was with fellow student Shannon Hardy and dentist instructor Dr. Anthony Brusca.

"Our week started pretty slowly, but as we began the process of unpacking gear, it suddenly felt like it was never going to end," Patton said. "We instantly had two pages of patients we were expected to see."

In fact, demand was so high that the team worked from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. for nearly a week.

"Shannon and I wrote notes probably until 11:30 p.m., ate dinner, went to sleep and repeated that schedule all week," Patton said. "While we were overwhelmed with all the dental work that needed to be completed, I felt comfort — the village made us feel at home.

"And as I was providing care, I realized that I love making a difference in the lives of the Yup'ik people and helping many feel free of pain," Patton added.

The DHAT program is even inspiring groups outside Alaska, with Lower 48 states looking at Alaska's training as a model for improving access to dental care for people in their areas. The American Association of Public Health Dentistry recently released a special supplement to their journal dedicated to exploring midlevel dental providers including dental therapists, including a curriculum outline based on the DHAT training curriculum and an article co-authored by Dr. Mary Williard, DHAT training director for ANTHC, on DHAT supervision.

Four more Alaska-trained dental therapists will graduate at the end of 2011, while seven new students are entering class this month at the ANTHC/University of Washington DENTEX Training Center in Anchorage.

Barbro Rakos is dental health aide therapy program manager.


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