Alaska Native children suffer from tooth decay at more than twice the national average, an epidemic brought to the public’s attention as a consequence of the 2000 Surgeon General’s Report. The parents and caregivers of these children, having themselves experienced similar problems as children, have continued to endure dental problems higher than the national average. The epidemic of dental disease in rural Alaska has grown because of insufficient access to dental care and oral health education. Villagers in remote areas have had to rely on infrequent visits by itinerant dentists or make costly trips by air to regional dental clinics for emergency care, weather permitting.
To address the growing problem, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium added a new auxiliary, the dental health aide therapist, to its Community Health Aide Program, a network of midlevel practitioners providing supervised medical care throughout the Alaska Tribal Health System. In 2003 the University of Otago, in New Zealand agreed to accept six Alaska Native students per year into their two-year dental therapist training program.
Three groups of students, funded by the Rasmusson Foundation, were sent to study in New Zealand in February 2003, 2004, and 2005. Four of the initial six students completed the program and entered practice in 2005 as employees of the Yukon-Kuskokwim dental health organization in Bethel and Maniilaq Association, in Kotzebue.
In January 2007, the first cohort of four Alaska-trained dental therapist students began their didactic training in Anchorage. The next year they moved to Bethel to complete their clinical training, which also included travel to remote villages to provide care.
As of September 2012 four classes of Alaska-trained DHATs have completed their training and have dispersed throughout the state to provide oral health care to Alaska Native populations. Two cohorts are currently in training.
The DHATs provide prevention services, fillings, and uncomplicated extractions while working under the general supervision of supervising dentists. More than 35,000 Alaska Native people living in rural Alaska now have improved access to regular dental care by 25 federally certified dental health aide therapists.