Alaska's efforts on rural dental care paying off

Posted: Sunday, December 19, 2010

ANCHORAGE - Alaska's efforts to deliver prompt, affordable dental care to its rural residents is gaining ground here, and providing a model for other states.

The Dental Health Aide Therapy program, started in 2006 in Alaska, is the first of its kind in the United States. An independent evaluation of the program, conducted over two years and released in November, confirmed dental therapists at work in five Alaska communities are providing safe, competent, appropriate dental care to children and adults.

Nearly 50 million Americans lack affordable dental care. Nationwide, states are seeking ways to improve access to dental care and exploring alternatives such as dental therapists. Based on the Alaska study, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which funded Alaska's program, announced a $16 million initiative in November to fund similar programs in Kansas, New Mexico, Ohio, Vermont and Washington.

"It's so exciting to see this positive feedback," said Fiona Brosnan, public relations manager for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, which runs the Alaska program. "People are looking at our program and seeing that it's working. We're leading the country."

The recent study conducted by RTI International of Research Triangle Park in North Carolina was funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and Alaska's Rasmuson Foundation and Bethel Community Services Foundation.

It evaluated the work of dental therapists in five unnamed Alaska communities, and polled hundreds of patients who received procedures on how dental therapists performed.

Therapists were directly observed placing sealants on children's teeth to prevent cavities, preparing composite and amalgam fillings, placing stainless steel crowns, and giving oral health instruction to patients. Examination standards used to assess clinical competency for board certification of U.S. dental school graduates were used to assess their work.

Key findings of the evaluation indicated:

• Dental therapists are technically competent to perform the procedures within their scope of work and are doing so safely and appropriately.

• They are consistently working under the general supervision of dentists.

• They are successfully treating cavities and helping to relieve pain for people who often had to wait months or travel hours to seek treatment.

• Patients were very satisfied with the care they received, and

• Dental therapists were well-accepted in tribal villages.

"The information provided in this evaluation confirms that dental therapists are working well under general supervision of the dentists," said Mary Williard, clinical director of Alaska's training program.

An estimated 85,000 Alaska Natives live in remote villages accessible only by air or water. In most of these tiny villages, a dentist is available only one week a year. Frequently, only the most urgent cases are seen.

The RTI evaluation surveyed 405 Alaska Natives, and found that more than half of all children have untreated dental decay, as do 60 percent of adolescents and 77 percent of adults.

About 25 percent of the dentist positions in tribal health organizations statewide are unfilled, and the dental therapist program is helping to fill that gap.

There are currently 14 practicing dental therapists in Alaska serving 25,000 potential patients in communities from Unalakleet to the Aleutian chain and the Panhandle. That number is poised to double.

Five therapists are currently completing preceptorships (three months or 400 hours of practical experience and training) under the supervision of a professional dentist. Seven new students graduated Dec. 10 from the two-year intensive training program and are ready to begin their preceptorships.

That's about half the number needed, Brosnan said.

"The optimal number of therapists would be 50 to 60 practicing around rural Alaska. We are evaluating the program right now to figure out where to go in the future."

Since the 1960s, dental care for rural Alaska Natives has been provided primarily by itinerant dentists employed by (or under contract to) the Indian Health Service or tribal organizations.

In 2003, ANTHC, in collaboration with tribal health organizations statewide, began the Alaska Dental Health Aide Initiative. Its goals are to reduce the number of Alaskans in pain from untreated dental disease and educate on the long-term benefits of preventive oral health care, like brushing and flossing.

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