What’s the best way to address the facts that show rural Alaska typically suffers from oral health disease at rates 2.5 times higher than the rest of the country? One model to consider is the Dental Health Aide Therapist program (DHAT) that employs ten Alaskans who provide oral health care for 39 villages. DHATs are mid-level health providers akin to physicians’ assistants.

A three-year, full-scale medical evaluation scheduled to begin this year will assess whether the DHAT workforce model — featuring trained dental therapists working under the direction of a dentist — can succeed in reducing the incidence of oral health disease in rural communities.

Jerry Drake, executive director of the Bethel Community Services Foundation, commented that if proven successful, DHAT could have the same impact on rural Alaska as the tuberculosis eradication program did in the mid-twentieth century.

A unique partnership between health care and philanthropy has been created around this issue; the partners are Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation, Maniilaq, Inc., Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, Norton Sound Health Corporation, Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, Bethel Community Services Foundation, M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Rasmuson Foundation.

Last week the Kellogg Foundation issued a press release on the DHAT evaluation.

Do you have an opinion about the DHAT program? Or other ideas for improving rural Alaska’s access to dental care? Is there another public health initiative that might reduce the dental disease rate in rural Alaska? Please post a comment.