Story last updated at 2/4/2009 - 11:44 am
JUNEAU - Two of the first four Alaska-trained dental health aide therapists started work this month with the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium Dental Services Program.
Daniel Kennedy of Klawock and Sheena Nelson of Yakutat graduated from the two-year Alaska Dental Health Aide Therapist Training Program in December.
The DHAT program was created because Alaska has a shortage of dentists in rural Alaska, and many communities may have a visiting dentist in town just a couple of times a year. The DHATs usually already live in the villages they'll serve, and they'll be able to see patients before minor issues become major problems.
Kennedy and Nelson need to complete a 400-hour preceptorship before they earn their DHAT certificates. During their preceptorships, Daniel is based at the SEARHC Alicia Roberts Medical Center in Klawock and Sheena is working at the SEARHC Ethel Lund Medical Center in Juneau. Once they finish their 400 hours under the direct supervision of a dentist, they will be able to work independently. Daniel will stay in Klawock and other Prince of Wales Island clinics, while Sheena will work at the Yakutat Community Health Center.
"This is the first group trained in Alaska, so this is kind of a big deal for us," said Dr. Tom Bornstein, DDS, SEARHC Director of Dental Services.
Dental health aide therapists can do basic dentistry, such as filling cavities and applying fluoride treatments, but they can't do advanced treatments such as root canals.
"I'm excited to be able to go back and serve my community," Nelson said. "I've grown a lot and matured a lot, and it's been a great learning experience."
"I really enjoyed all of it," Kennedy said of his two years of training, the first in Anchorage and the second in Bethel. "When I first got here, one of the parents said it was the first time they'd ever had an Indian looking at their children."
Kennedy and Nelson both said they already had community members who wanted to schedule appointments once they start working.
The new DHATs will be able to treat people with cavities, but Kennedy and Nelson said they're more excited about teaching youth and parents how to prevent dental caries (the plaque that leads to cavities).
"The main thing I want to tackle is I want to start on caries prevention with the first tooth and those that follow," Kennedy said. "That way they can be cavity-free. The best time to start is when the first teeth come in."
"I want to make children as comfortable as possible, and we're targeting younger patients," Nelson said. "We'll even have nutritional education for parents."
Preventing caries is a big part of the DHAT job, and Dr. Bornstein said having someone living in the communities will make a big difference.