Access to oral health care services has always been a challenge in American Indian/Native American communities. Compounding the problem is a shortage of providers willing and able to give that care. According to a fact sheet (The American Indian Health Web portal, which is sponsored by the National Library of Medicine Division) American Indian and Native American populations comprise about one percent of the U.S. population, yet there are less than one percent of active American Indian/Native American dentists and less than 0.5% of dental students.
Little by little times are changing.
The ATSU’s Arizona School of Dentistry & Oral Health (ATSU-ASDOH) is now the alma mater of the largest-ever cohort of American Indians believed to graduate from a U.S. dental school. At ATSU-ASDOH’s commencement ceremony last June, six American Indian students took an oath to provide compassionate oral health care to rural and underserved communities, including the reservations where they grew up.
“When we started the dental school 12 years ago, there were 98 American Indian dentists in the whole United States,” said Dr. Jack Dillenberg, ASDOH Dean, in a recent interview with the American Dental Education Association. “We’ve graduated six in one year. That’s amazing!”
ASDOH is not the only school making a concerted effort to recruit and retain American Indian students. Other universities are also joining in the effort — including Creighton University School of Dentistry, and the University of Oklahoma College of Dentistry. These efforts come as the oral health of this population continues to deteriorate. Investigators from the Center for Native Oral Health Research (CNOHR) at The University of Colorado Denver report that among American Indians—and also Alaskan Natives—preschool children have three times more untreated tooth decay than their general-population peers; adults have significantly more periodontal disease; and nearly a quarter of those over age 65 are edentulous (toothless).
Despite these sobering numbers, more newly minted American Indian dentists going back to the community to improve oral health is certainly something to smile about.