DHAT Educational Program Background
In 2003, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC), with financial support from the Rasmuson Foundation, sent the first cohort of Alaska students to New Zealand to attend the dental therapist-training program at Otago University in Dunedin. After three years, changes to the New Zealand program and the desire to provide dental therapy education closer to home, led to ANTHC establishing the first Dental Health Aide Therapist Educational Program in the United States. The first cohort of students enrolled in the ANTHC Alaska program began their studies in January of 2007.
As of July 1, 2016, 33 DHATs and 2 preceptors are providing much-needed access to mid-level dental care and prevention services to 80 rural communities with an Alaska Native population of nearly just over 40,000. Since its inception in 2003, Alaska’s “innovative local solution to a local problem” has been on the forefront of discussions about oral health delivery in the lower 48. Alaska’s DHAT Educational Program’s workforce model has been independently researched, studied, evaluated, assessed, and validated at the national level and is revered by many as a proven model of mid-level dental care that can and should be exported and replicated throughout the United States. Consistent findings include:
- DHATs provide quality, culturally sensitive dental care to underserved AI/AN populations in Alaska
- Tribes employing DHATs earn a profit beyond DHAT employment expenses
- Tribes employing DHATs save money by avoiding costly medical flights, medical and surgical procedures
- The limited scope of work DHAT provide is on par with dentists performing the same procedures
- DHATs are positive role models for their families and communities and are inspiring future generations of Alaskans – DHATs connect positively with the communities they serve.
With an experienced DHAT able to see an average of 800 patients each year in a busy regional dental clinic, the work DHATs perform reduce the length of having to wait for dental care. When Tribal Health Organizations (THO) employ DHATs, dentists are relieved from performing many of the routine exams and procedures patients present each day. Procedures like filling cavities and performing simple extractions. When DHATs are performing these more common and routine services, dentists are then able to perform the more highly skilled procedures that they alone are trained to do, and are in general, procedures that can be billed at a higher cost. In addition to easing the demand for dentists to perform routine procedures, DHATs provide culturally appropriate and sensitive oral health education and preventive services.