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Alaska Rural Dental Therapist Program Celebrates 10 Years

Dental Health Aid Therapists are mid-level dental technicians trained specifically to work in rural villages. Ten years ago, the first group of Alaskan students returned from New Zealand with their certification.  Now, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium offers the program in state. 

DHATs are trained to do cleanings, fillings, simple extractions and provide dental education to the community that they serve.  Since the program in Alaska started ten years ago, DHATs have expanded to cover more than 40,000 Alaska Native people in over 80 rural villages. 

The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium DHAT educational program director Mary Willard says although anyone can apply, the requirements are strict: have a GED or diploma, be at least 18 years old, and be sponsored by a tribal group.

“The student would come to the program, and it’s a two year long program, during that time the sponsor would pay for their tuition and living expenses. The students that come here have housing and a small living stipend supplied for them, their books and tuition are all covered.”

Willard says whatever the tribe doesn’t pay for is taken care of by grants ANTHC receives. Training for DHATs lasts for two years and requires that the student go to Anchorage or Bethel. 

Samantha Brown is among the most recent graduates in the DHAT program.  She was being sponsored by  Maniilaq Association and has a contract with them for four years.

“I wasn’t sure I had an interest in dentistry. As soon as I got pregnant with my daughter, I knew I needed to just get anything and my sister had given me an application to the dental offices. I was accepted and not too long after being hired I found out that I really liked it and I really enjoyed it.”

Brown says when she first heard about the program, her daughter was just a couple months old.  She says her daughter was her inspiration for finishing the program. 

“My daughter just turned three in December and most kids her age don’t have their four front teeth. I’m lucky to have the knowledge about the baby teeth that I have. I’m just really proud of that. I haven’t gone back to Kotzebue yet but I’m looking to change how people think about the baby teeth and they play a big role in how the permanent teeth come in.”

Willard says the DHAT program is incredibly important because it’s difficult for rural Alaska to get dentists and physicians to open practices in the villages.  She says children in rural Alaska are two and half times more likely to have tooth decay than those in cities. 

“We’ve had dental therapy here in Alaska now for about ten years and what we are starting to see is kids in the community that have no cavities, they can grow up cavity free. We see children that are looking up to their dental therapist living in their community as role models. Some one that’s gone away, gotten an education and come back to their community to provide care to their people.”

This year, ANTHC saw five dental therapists graduate.