A local station in Anchorage, Alaska, found that even a simple solution to a community problem can be hard to implement when deep-pocketed interests are threatened. KTUU-TV, Anchorage’s NBC affiliate, won a small-market UNITY award for its three-part series “Toothaches and Heartache,” about a new program placing trained public health service dental aides in a series of remote native villages in rural Alaska and the fierce opposition the American Dental Association is mounting to shut it down.
The story is a complex one that cuts across ethnic, socioeconomic and political lines. When native villagers lived off the land, they had no need for dentists, explained the segment’s producer, Rhonda McBride. After Western sugars, soda pop and candy were introduced into the diet, however, tooth decay became a serious issue and the villagers had no access to modern dentistry to treat their problems. Licensed dentists eventually began making the trek out to remote places such as Toksook Bay by prop plane or boat, but those visits were infrequent. And when the dentists did visit, their inability to speak the native Alaskans’ language made it difficult for them to gain the trust and understanding of their patients.
Enter a new program, modeled after a successful practice in New Zealand, Australia and Canada, that trains dental therapists to handle basic dental surgery in remote clinics and schools. So far eight therapists have been deployed in remote locations in Alaska. But the Alaskan Dental Society and American Dental Association are fighting it tooth and nail, saying that practitioners are ill-qualified and could do irreparable harm.
Ms. McBride has followed up the original trio of reports with a story covering the ADA’s lobbying efforts in Washington to try to prevent the practice from spreading to the lower 48 states. She is also about to take another trip to see how the new facilities are doing. She says the program has already made an impact that the ADA refuses to acknowledge.
“The ADA’s argument is hard to justify when you look at how successful the program has been in New Zealand and Canada, where no one has been seriously harmed,” Ms. McBride said. “The dental therapist program could be viable for poor people across the country if it were given a chance.”