Health | National

Swinomish Tribe hires first dental aide therapist in Washington

Dental health aide therapists in Alaska have been successfully providing services to rural Native villages since 2006. Photo from Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium / Facebook

The Swinomish Tribe of Washington has hired a dental health aide therapist, the first in the Lower 48 to do so.

Therapists can perform basic dental health services, including fillings and simple extractions. They aren't allowed under Washington law but the tribe doesn't fall under state jurisdiction.

'There are too few dentists in Indian Country,” Chairman Brian Cladoosby said in a press release. “We cannot stand by any longer and allow Native people to continue to suffer tooth decay at a rate three times the national average. We have developed a tribal approach to solve a tribal issue. This solution will help our people immediately address their oral health needs in ways that have not been possible until today.”

The tribe's dental aide therapist is supported by a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in partnership with the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board. The effort is modeled after a successful one among Native villages in Alaska.

“Today we stand with the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community,” said Joe Finkbonner, the executive director of the NPAIHB. “We applaud the leadership, dedication and courage that has resulted in this historic occasion, and we look forward to continued partnership turning the tide on oral health disparities in this community and throughout the Portland Area.”

Despite the success in Alaska, dental aide therapists are opposed by the mainstream dental community. Dentists contend that they subject Native people to substandard care.

A provision in the Indian Health Care Improvement Act allows dental aide therapists but only if they are allowed in the state where the tribe is based. According to the Indian Health Service, only Alaska and Minnesota authorize dental aide therapists.

Get the Story:
Swinomish tribe hires dental therapist despite opposition (AP 1/4)
State dentists lobby is blocking potential source of low-cost care (The Seattle Times 1/4)