In Alaska: The Dental Therapist Will See You Now

1950s Dentistry in Alaska i i

In the early 1950s, a U.S. Coast Guard team provided dental care to the Alaskan natives in the isolated village of Stebbins. Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Hulton Archive/Getty Images
1950s Dentistry in Alaska

In the early 1950s, a U.S. Coast Guard team provided dental care to the Alaskan natives in the isolated village of Stebbins.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In small towns and villages throughout Alaska, people can't easily get dental care — mostly because there are so few dentists. As a result, Native Alaskans suffer more than their share of dental decay and tooth loss.

Now one program is training ordinary citizens as dental therapists. The idea behind the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium's plan is for neighbors to gain the skills they need to treat other neighbors. This week, The New York Times featured the program in an article headlined "Dental Clinics, Meeting a Need With No Dentists".

Project manager Carol Odinzoff says Alaska's first dental therapists, or dental health aides, studied in countries like New Zealand — where people depend on a similar system for care. So far, 10 dental therapists are working in Alaskan tribal communities. After two years of training, they'll clean teeth, fill cavities and work with licensed doctors of dentistry on more complicated procedures. Aides e-mail pictures of suspect teeth to dentists for consultation.

Odinzoff says she's encouraged by earlier success with health aides, and by research into the quality of care in countries where dental therapists work. "We have not been able to find anywhere in the world where this has not been a successful model of providing dental services in rural communities," she says.

Meanwhile, the Alaska Dental Society and the American Dental Association warn that the dental therapists aren't real dentists. They say therapists could end up doing more harm than good. The professional dentistry groups sued to block the program, but dropped their case last summer.

If the choice is between getting care from a trained neighbor and not getting care, Odinzoff says, most people will choose the dental therapist. "The problem right now with what we're seeing is there is so much active decay, so much active disease," she says. "Mouth after mouth after mouth — you've got 5- and 6- and 7-year-olds with absolutely decayed teeth." For lack of earlier care, those children are now destined for full dental restorations under general anaesthetic in a hospital. She continues, "I had never seen that before I came to Alaska."

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