Access to dental care on reservations has been a problem for decades. In an effort to address the issue, Washington state gave tribes the go-ahead last year to hire mid-level providers known as “dental health aide therapists.”
A loophole in the updated Indian Health Services Act prevented tribes from using the mid-level providers without first getting state approval. It took six years to get the law passed after urging from tribes across the state, including the Swinomish and Colville.
There are five students already enrolled in the Alaska Dental Therapy Education program from Washington tribes: two from the Lummi Nation, two from Swinomish and one from Colville. They will graduate in June 2019. They plan to return to their tribes to work.
The Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe was the first to bring a dental therapist into its clinic thanks to the new law.
“There’s already been a buzz in the community about the fact that we have a dental therapist," Health Services Director Karol Dixon said. "There’s been an increased interest in the community in coming into the clinic to get dental care.”
Dixon says she's also fitting in well with the tribe.
“Her ability to connect with people in the community is unparalleled, I think. Being able to connect with the patients, she gets along well with the staff. I think it was surprising to all of the clinical staff how quickly she was able to jump in,” she said.
Dixon says the dental therapist was trained through Alaska’s program, which has been training DHATs for more than a decade. She also worked in villages there.
Dixon’s hope is to send one the tribe’s own members to DHAT school, but moving to Alaska for two years is a big commitment. There’s an effort underway to create a training program closer to home.
The Skagit Valley College has been working with the Swinomish Tribe to develop one. The Swinomish were one of the driving forces behind the new dental therapist law.
The college's Workforce Education Dean Darren Greeno says the partnership felt right because the school’s mission is focused on equity and social justice.
“And this project speaks to both elements," he said. "When we were approached to do this, the first response is let’s analyze it. Let’s look at the demand. Let’s look at what we need to have in place to successfully prepare students to move into this new field.”
Greeno says the school is still in the midst of its feasibility study, but he anticipates a degree program could be in place by the fall of 2020.