A Solution to Rural Alaska’s Dental Problems?


We met dental health aide therapist student Jana Schuerch at the Yuut Elitnaurviat Dental Training Clinic in Bethel, Alaska. Schuerch, 28, lights up when she tells us about her fiancé, Charlie, and their three young children living in Nome — a plane ride (or two) from Bethel.

She’s one of four second year students in the Alaska Dental Health Aide Therapist Training Program. After spending their first year of training in Anchorage, the students practice at the clinic here, where children and adults come for basic and preventive dental care. Enrollment in the program requires a high school diploma and a letter of sponsorship from an Alaska Tribal Health Organization. After they complete the two year program, they’ll go to small, rural villages like Toksook Bay (see our slideshow on that community here).

The sacrifice of being away from her family is worth it, according to Schuerch. She’s seen what poor oral healthcare can do to people and made a decision to do something about it. Her main focus: preventing “dental caries,” also known as tooth decay or a cavities. She’s also trained to perform irreversible procedures, like extracting teeth and drilling cavities, without the direct supervision of a dentist.

The need for dental care in rural Alaska is huge. According to a recent CDC report, the rate of cavities among rural Alaska Native children is four and a half times greater than the general population of U.S. children of the same age.

We sat down with Schuerch in Bethel and asked her why she decided to make the sacrifice to become a dental therapist.

But it’s important to note the dental therapist program in Alaska is not without controversy. When dental therapists began practicing in Alaska in 2005, the American Dental Association and the Alaska Dental Society filed a lawsuit against it. Their aim was to ensure patients do not receive substandard care, and argued that two years of training is not sufficient to perform irreversible surgical procedures.

The lawsuit was eventually dropped, but the ADA remains opposed to similar mid-level providers in the rest of the country.

Our report will air on the NewsHour later this month.