New study validates care by Dental Health Aide Therapists

October 27 2010

Dental Health Aide Therapists (DHATs) working in rural Alaska provide safe, competent and appropriate care, according to a two-year, intensive study released this week by RTI International, the first major independent evaluation of the Alaska dental therapist program. Due to a severe shortage of dentists in Alaska, especially in rural areas that are predominantly Alaska Native, the Alaska dental therapist program was created in 2006 to help provide limited dental services in remote communities not served by a dentist. DHATs receive two years of intensive training that allows them to perform limited dental services, such as filling cavities, performing simple extractions, placing stainless steel crowns for baby teeth and providing education about good oral health. DHATs work under the remote supervision of a dentist. The SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC) has two DHATs on staff — Brian James in Sitka and Dan Kennedy in Klawock. “Obviously, we are pleased to have an independent study concur with our opinion that the DHATs are providing safe, competent care,” said SEARHC Director of Dental Services Dr. Tom Bornstein, DDS, who wrote a white paper in 2000 about the emerging dental crisis in rural Alaska that outlined what eventually became the Alaska dental therapist program. “It also is worth noting that the researchers used the same evaluation standards they would have used to check the quality of care provided by dentists.” The Alaska dental therapist program, which is operated through the Alaska Tribal Health System, is the only dental therapist program authorized in the United States. But it is modeled after similar dental therapist programs in more than 50 other countries and the Alaska Community Health Aide Practitioner Program. The study confirms that dental therapists fill a vital need in Alaska by providing more access to care, especially in remote areas that previously had little or no access to dental services. The study also noted that patient satisfaction is very high and dental therapists are well respected in their villages. These findings are nationally relevant because close to 50 million Americans live in federally designated dental shortage areas, where there are not enough dentists to provide routine dental care. Other states with large rural areas, such as Minnesota and Montana, are looking at using the Alaska dental therapist program as a model for similar programs in their states. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Rasmuson Foundation and the Bethel Community Services Foundation funded the study, which can be found online at http://www.wkkf.org/news/Articles/2010/10/Alaska-Dental-Therapist-Program-Study.aspx.