ANCHORAGE - Rural Alaskans swapped stories of rural dentistry woes on Friday at a ceremony celebrating Alaska's new dental health aide therapist program.
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The program is the first of its kind in the United States and is meant to address chronic dental problems in the Bush by training students to perform more complex procedures on patients.
These dental therapists will eventually augment the services of fully trained dentists, who are rarely available in bush communities. They will not receive full dental training.
The dental therapists can perform cleanings, routine fillings and simple extractions, but cannot prescribe medicines and focus primarily on preventing tooth decay, program officials said.
The creation of dental therapists stirred up national controversy when it was first proposed several years ago. The Alaska Dental Society and the American Dental Association sued the state and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium last year, saying the aides would not be qualified to drill and pull teeth.
In July the dental associations settled the suit and the University of Washington agreed to sponsor a program to be taught in Alaska.
Fifty-two countries had dental health aide programs before the U.S., said Dr. Ron Nagel, dental consultant for the consortium and a leader behind the program.
Most of the 100,000 residents of rural Alaska have dentists visiting their communities only once or twice a year. The tooth decay rate for Alaska Natives is more than double the national average, according to state figures.
"There are people who don't even smile out there because they are embarrassed," said Dr. Mary Williard, clinical site director at the consortium. She spent nine years working in Bethel and outlying villages.
When Valerie Davidson was growing up in Aniak, she would wait in line once a year to see the dentist. Davidson, now a director at the tribal health consortium, remembers listening to the children ahead of her screaming in pain and the dentist being splattered with blood by the time it was her turn.
Toothaches prevent children from going to school. Severely rotten teeth can affect a person's ability to get a job if they move to Anchorage, Willard said.
Williard said she would work 13-hour days for a week straight in a village, yet would still have to turn people away because she didn't have time to see them.
Parachuting into a village once or twice a year doesn't address the real need, which is education about how to keep teeth clean, as well as preventive dentistry, Williard said.