Alaska's now leading the way in dental health for rural communities with its Dental Health Aide Therapist program, or DHAT.

A study by the University of Washington found the program significantly reduced the amount of dental work in villages across the state. Since DHAT started in 2015, children in villages around Alaska have needed up to 15 percent fewer extractions, and it's up to 13 percent fewer for adults.

Dental therapists are trained at schools in Anchorage and Bethel, where they learn how to perform basic dental procedures. They then take that knowledge back to their villages.

Alaska has an unusually high rate of dental disease, but the DHAT program is reversing that trend. The problem dates back to the beginning of air travel in the state, which brought sugary foods to faraway places.

"And it’s not that the Alaska Native people didn’t have ways to take care of their teeth, they definitely did, traditional ways. But when the diets changed so quickly, those habits didn’t change as quickly," said Dr. Mary Williard, director of the DHAT program.
 

Tammy Merchant was one of the first dental therapists in the state. When she started, the concept was so new, she had to travel to New Zealand for training.

"I love the service that we do," she said. "To see someone sit up and see the front teeth that they didn’t think could be filled, and I like, actually gained their trust."

Trust is a big part of why some former patients, like Dana Diehl of Aniak, say the program is working.

"You know that, from past experiences, they’ll take care of you," Diehl explained.

Willard calls DHAT a homegrown solution to a local problem, and the new study is proof that Alaska got it right.

The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium says more than 80 villages in the state now have therapists in their community. The program has become a model for other states such as Washington and Oregon.