Dental Therapy on the Swinomish Reservation

Posted October 8, 2020 at 5:30 am by

Asi­ah Gon­za­lez, den­tal ther­a­pist / Con­tributed Photo

Asi­ah Gon­za­lez, a den­tal ther­a­pist, shares her views on the advan­tages of den­tal therapy.

Grow­ing up on the Swinomish reser­va­tion, I nev­er imag­ined that I could have a career in med­i­cine. I tried hard in school, but I nev­er saw den­tists or doc­tors who looked like the peo­ple I grew up with.

That all changed when our tribe brought in a den­tal ther­a­pist. Sud­den­ly, my reg­u­lar check-ups were with a provider that grew up on a reser­va­tion like me, and who chose their pro­fes­sion so they could give back to their com­mu­ni­ty. I felt inspired.

My senior year, they asked if I would be inter­est­ed in intern­ing at the den­tal clin­ic. The expe­ri­ence opened my eyes. Every day after class­es, I helped at the clin­ic and learned that oral health is about so much more than flossing.

A person’s smile impacts their entire life – a healthy smile gives a good first impres­sion at a job inter­view and helps a per­son gain self-esteem even when their com­mu­ni­ty is marginalized.

I saw that pre­vent­ing seri­ous oral health prob­lems ear­ly helped my neigh­bors save a lot of mon­ey. I also saw that native patients had bet­ter health out­comes and less fear when their den­tal provider was a famil­iar face.

After the intern­ship, I knew what I want­ed to do with my life. I enrolled in an inno­v­a­tive pro­gram in Alas­ka that trained trib­al mem­bers to be den­tal ther­a­pists. A den­tal ther­a­pist is a new type of pri­ma­ry care oral health provider designed to fill the gaps in com­mu­ni­ties where care is out of reach. The pro­gram trained peo­ple like me—people from places where health care access is scarce—so we could return and pro­vide afford­able den­tal care to our com­mu­ni­ty. As soon as I got my degree, I moved back to the reser­va­tion and helped cut down month-long wait times for Swinomish mem­bers to get basic den­tal care.

And then, when the pan­dem­ic hit, I was able to put my train­ing to greater use. Because my patients had known me for most of their lives, they trust­ed my advice about stay­ing safe dur­ing COVID-19. I also pro­vide tele-health den­tal vis­its, elim­i­nat­ed aerosol pro­duc­ing pro­ce­dures and used my train­ing with portable equip­ment out­doors to keep patients healthy. I know first­hand the chal­lenges my patients face every day, which means I can help peo­ple prob­lem solve dur­ing a dif­fi­cult time.

Right now, den­tal ther­a­pists in Wash­ing­ton state are only allowed to prac­tice in trib­al set­tings. Six Wash­ing­ton tribes employ den­tal ther­a­pists, and a study by the Uni­ver­si­ty of Washington’s Den­tal School show that den­tal ther­a­py reduces emer­gency teeth extrac­tions for kids and pre­vents tooth decay that leads to seri­ous health prob­lems. It’s past time to offer this solu­tion statewide.

As COVID con­tin­ues to dec­i­mate the health care deliv­ery sys­tem, I hope that state law­mak­ers take notice of den­tal care inno­va­tions that tribes are using to keep peo­ple healthy. By expand­ing den­tal ther­a­pists to be able to serve the entire state, we could edu­cate and employ peo­ple from com­mu­ni­ties that are hit hard by COVID. We could also start mak­ing den­tal care more afford­able for the over 400,000 Wash­ing­to­ni­ans who have lost jobs—and insurance—during the COVID pandemic.

Wash­ing­ton state needs a cost-effec­tive and com­mu­ni­ty-focused work­force now more than ever. The good news is that tribes like the Swinomish are show­ing how den­tal ther­a­py can make den­tal care eas­i­er to access and afford. Becom­ing a den­tal ther­a­pist changed my life and is bring­ing healthy smiles to the peo­ple I grew up with. It’s time to expand den­tal ther­a­py across the state.


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