We need more dental options in North Dakota
By, Darius Sparks
Growing up on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, dentist visits were very rare for me. In fact, the only time I went to the dentist was when I was 13 because I needed to get an infected tooth pulled. I did not go for regular check-ups or cleanings. While growing up, if I had a toothache or cavity, my mom would go buy Oral Gel to numb the pain until the root eventually died and it stopped hurting. That was my dental care.
I simply did not have the same access to dental care that some others have, but I know I’m not alone. Many Americans across the country, especially Native Americans, live in areas where there are not enough dentists – if there’s a dentist at all. Even if there is a dentist relatively close, many Americans simply can not afford care or the dentist will not take their insurance – especially Medicaid. Lack of access to quality care combined with the fact that Native Americans, like myself, experience higher rates of decay than the general population, means that I have two strikes against me and so do my peers.
Fortunately for tribal members and all Americans, tribes in Alaska and in the Pacific Northwest are leading the way to improved access and delivery of dental care. Tribes in Alaska first launched the Dental Therapy program to address the serious oral health disparities they were seeing in villages across the state. Now they are seeing cavity free children for the first time in decades and over 40,000 Alaska Natives now have much-needed care.
Dental therapists, which are comparable to Physician’s Assistants and Nurse Practitioners, are making their way down to the Lower-48. Tribes in Oregon and Washington have joined Alaska in providing care to tribal members through dental therapists and I know it will make a big difference.
There is a big oral health problem in the United States, but the solution exists. We just need to bring it here to North Dakota. Once we do, children across the country won’t have to suffer in pain like I did growing up.