Alaska editorial: Oral health matters more than the letters 'D.D.S.'

Posted: Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The peaceful settlement of a legal dispute between dentist associations and Native health care providers this month gives Bush residents a better shot at something city dwellers take for granted: decent dental care.

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Alaska's rural dental therapists have been trained to a higher level of skill than other dental aides to bridge a giant gap in Bush dental care. They are taught to perform some traditional dentist work, such as pulling and filling teeth. They work under the supervision of dentists, but those dentists are not necessarily on site.

The therapists' expanded duties rile some dentists, who think only they can safely do such work.

The fact is, though, the program shows great promise. It brings regular dental service to parts of rural Alaska where tooth decay rates are among the highest in the country and dentists are scarce.

It's no good expecting volunteer dentists to make frequent visits to these distant villages. If that were a workable solution it would have happened already.

The Alaska Dental Society and American Dental Association had sued to prevent rural dental therapists from doing fillings and extractions. The associations lost in state Superior Court in late June. Rather than appeal, the associations earlier this month announced they'll drop the case.

And in fact, the American Dental Association and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium went a step further. They held a news conference to say they're going to cooperate on some programs to improve oral health of Alaska Natives.

One thing they plan to do together is to evaluate the effectiveness of the dental therapists - an excellent idea.

The Alaska Dental Society did not participate in a press conference on cooperative efforts. Society president Dr. Michale Boothe of Anchorage said the state dental society still has concerns about the dental health therapist program. But, he said, the legal action is definitely over.

As well it should be. Now, everyone can concentrate on improving dental care instead of fighting in court.

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