From Website Philanthropynw.org – Fighting Tooth and Nail
Friday, November 12th, 2010
By Carol Lewis
I think we all need to celebrate when philanthropy “gets it right.” So, join me in congratulating the Rasmuson Foundation and their partners for having the the courage (and tenacity) to stick with an innovative dental aide program.
“Mushing for Brushing” awareness event in Bethel, Alaska
Last month, a study published by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation confirmed what many already believed – high quality, cost-effective dental care can be delivered to people living in remote rural communities. Specifically, the Kellogg study found that dental health aide therapists practicing in Alaska’s native communities provided safe, competent and appropriate dental care to their patients.
Perhaps this doesn’t seem remarkable to the casual reader. But consider that just a few years ago, a severe shortage of dentists in rural Alaska equated with tooth decay for Alaska Natives that ran at two and half times the national average.
A dental aide therapy student practices on a model in Anchorage under the supervision of Dr. Todd Smith, a national IHS Periodontal Consultant
When philanthropic leaders supported the creation of a new category of service providers to deploy into these communities, organized dentistry stood in firm opposition. The Alaska Dental Society, in conjunction with the American Dental Association, lobbied in Congress to block the program, suggesting that patient safety and care would be compromised. (Up until 2008, students interested in becoming dental health aide therapists had to fly to New Zealand for training because it was not offered through any American dental programs.) When Congress refused to block the program, the opponents went to court. Again, they were unsuccessful.
Rasmuson Foundation President Diane Kaplan, reflects on her experience this way: “We’ve learned that foundations must prepare for controversy and opposition in tackling entrenched problems such as poor oral health care in rural locations. However, despite everything you do to prepare, don’t be surprised if the opposition is stronger than you anticipate. Solutions are never as easy as they might appear.” The Rasmuson Foundation’s perseverance and commitment paid off not only for the people of Alaska, but for people in low-income rural communities around the country.
This is where a few words on “commitment to evaluation” becomes important. The two-year independent study funded by the W.K. Kellogg, Rasmuson and Bethel Community Services Foundations was expensive and time-consuming. But now, here it is for all of us to consider. The lessons of the program, run by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, will be shared with others. As recently as last month, national funders toured Alaska communities, meeting with ANTHC service providers.
Fighting tooth and nail for change – and succeeding. Something to celebrate, for sure.