780 AM | 96.1 FM | “Yours for Western Alaska”

Profile: Nonprofit Touts Alaska Dental Therapists as Oral Health Pioneers

Bobby Curtis is a Dental Health Aide Therapist in Shishmaref. Photo: Matthew F. Smith, KNOM.

An innovative form of dental care pioneered in western Alaska is being touted by a nationwide nonprofit as a model for dental health in rural America.

Dental health aide therapists have been providing midlevel dental care—everything from cleaning teeth to filling cavities—in the Norton Sound region for about a decade, filling a vital role in Alaska, where dentists are few and travel to see one is expensive.

Dental therapist Bobby Curtis in NSHC's dental clinic in Nome. Photo: Matthew F. Smith, KNOM.

Dental therapist Bobby Curtis in NSHC’s dental clinic in Nome. Photo: Matthew F. Smith, KNOM.

Now a report from the Pew Charitable Trusts highlights Norton Sound Health Corporation’s dental therapist program as one of the top efforts in the nation when it comes to increasing access to dental care to underserved groups—and for doing so affordably.

Bobby Curtis has been a dental therapist for more than 15 years—and for the past five years has worked to emphasize preventative dental care to kids in Shishmaref.

“In Shishmaref, what we do is during the school year we do a school program,” Curtis said. “We get the kids in, we do the exams and cleanings, and we do a weekly fluoride rinse program out there. So that they’re not just seeing us in the clinic, they’re seeing us outside the clinic also, at the school.”

The Pew report notes that dental therapists have been operating in dozens of other countries before coming to the U.S., but their success in Alaska has led to them being trained and certified in Minnesota and, recently, dental therapists have been approved in Maine. As many as 15 other states are looking to license their own dental therapists.