Objectives. Dental therapists are mid-level providers who deliver preventive and basic restorative dental care and have been in practice in Alaska’s Yukon Kuskokwim (YK) Delta since 2005. The objective of this qualitative program evaluation is to document the experiences of dental care providers and community members with dental therapists.
Methods. We interviewed dental care providers (N=16) and community members (N=125) from six YK Delta communities in 2017 and 2018. The communities were selected based on community-level exposure to dental therapists (high, medium, and no exposure). Interviews were recorded, transcribed, and coded inductively into conceptual domains using content analytic methods.
Results. Providers believed communities have benefited from clinic-based dental care and school-based education provided by dental therapists. The scope of dental therapy limits the complexity of care provided in communities, but dental therapists appear to provide quality care resulting in high patient satisfaction. Community members believed dental therapists help prevent disease and improve quality-of-life and noted improved knowledge and changing norms and beliefs about oral health. Some parents believed dental therapists have helped to improve behaviors like toothbrushing by providing toothbrushes and showing children how and when to brush. Barriers to retention have limited the number of actively practicing dental therapists. Many adults continue to have unmet needs.
Conclusions. The dental therapy program in Alaska’s YK Delta is a successful dental care delivery model, but challenges remain in meeting the needs of adults. Dental therapy programs should incorporate evidence-based strategies that meet the needs of adults and address dental disease prevention.