Program Officer Joel Neimeyer will soon be leaving the Foundation. In this post, he revisits a professional highlight: to have been the point person on Rasmuson Foundation’s investmentsin the dental health aide therapy workforce model.

Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski with DENTEX Class 2 students

Posted by Joel Neimeyer, Program Officer

I will be leaving the Foundation soon for a position with the Denali Commission – the start date has not yet been set, hence my departure date from the Foundation is fluid. It has been one of my professional highlights to serve as a Foundation Program Officer for the past five years and to have been the point person on Rasmuson Foundation’s investments in the dental health aide therapy workforce model. (History of the Foundation’s support can be found here, here, here , here, and here.)

It seems that the controversy of the Alaska dental therapist program is known by virtually everyone. In the past two years I have worked with organized dentistry and the dental hygiene community both in Alaska and on the national scene on this and other oral health matters. Furthermore, I have worked with a number of stakeholder groups in the Lower 48 interested in developing a mid-level oral health workforce model. Recently, I have been surprised and pleased at how quickly most of the dental community has moved past the controversy and are willing to engage in a conversation on how to expand access to dental care to over 80 million Americans that (the American Dental Association estimates) do not have a dental home. Consequently, I believe that in the relatively near future dental therapy training programs will be developed in a number of states. To be honest, it may take many years before dental therapists will be working in all 50 states. The story of the physician assistant or the nurse practioner medical mid-level models tells us that it will take perseverance, patience, time, and the ride will be bumpy, but I believe it will happen. A primary reason it will happen is because the Alaska tribal dental therapist program has demonstrated that a mid-level oral health workforce model in a team setting can provide quality health care in remote locations where dentists typically do not practice.

Tomorrow (December 11, 2009), the second cohort of DHAT students will graduate from the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium/University of Washington DENTEX Dental Health Aide Therapist Training Program, which is the only such training program in the United States. Over the past two years I have had the pleasure to interact with the six students in a variety of settings and I will be proud and excited for them and their families as they complete this part of their academic training. As one of my final functions at the Foundation, watching Marian Petla, Bernadette Charles, Ben Steward, Ooyuan Nagaruk, Tambre Guido, and Tatiana Barraclough graduate tomorrow will be meaningful and long-lasting. I expect the graduation ceremony will be a specific reminder of my work at the Rasmuson Foundation and will always serve as a reminder to the potential of philanthropy to make a meaningful impact on our society.

Two of the students will practice in my Mom’s region in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and I would be thrilled if they, or any of the other practicing DHATs, were to provide me dental services in the future. To the students – congratulations, and keep a dental chair open for me!

Photo: Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski with DENTEX Class 2 students who will graduate tomorrow, Dentex Manager Mary Anaruk (second from left), Ron Nagel, DDS, and Mary Williard, DDS to the right. Photo courtesy DENTEX.

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