The Swinomish Indian Tribal Community became the first tribe in the country outside of Alaska to hire a dental therapist when it hired Daniel Kennedy, Swinomish chairman Brian Cladoosby said.
“We are making history today,” Cladoosby said Monday as he welcomed Kennedy at a ceremony.
Dental therapists, a mid-level dentistry position akin to a physician assistant in the medical field, are trained in 46 basic procedures such as teeth cleaning and cavity filling.
Kennedy’s hiring was spurred by the tribal dental clinic’s inability to serve its approximately 3,000 patients with one dentist. Before his hiring, patients could expect to wait four to six weeks for an appointment, Cladoosby said.
Kennedy has six years experience as a dental therapist in Alaska, where the practice of employing dental therapists in tribal communities originated.
“Prevention is my main goal,” Kennedy said. “I don’t want to be doing damage control.”
The Swinomish tribe is also paying for one of its members, Aiyana Guzman, to train to be a dental therapist, Cladoosby said. When she completes her two years of training, she plans to return to the Swinomish clinic and serve her community.
The Washington State Dentistry Association has long opposed dental therapists on the grounds that they aren’t trained to handle complex dental procedures.
This view has gained traction in the state Legislature, contributing to the failure of Swinomish-backed bills to allow dental therapists, if even just on tribal land, Cladoosby said.
The association did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
Cladoosby said he and the tribe’s governing body responded by implementing “a tribal approach to solving a tribal issue,” and hired Kennedy.
“We feel that we have done what any other sovereign would do to meet the needs of their people,” he said.
Cladoosby said he expects some pushback from organizations such as the American Dental Association, which sued the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium when it started a dental therapist program in 2006. But Cladoosby said he’s confident the tribe will succeed in retaining Kennedy.
Cladoosby said he hopes the Swinomish tribe will inspire other tribes to exercise their sovereignty and help fix what he said is a “quiet crisis” of substandard oral health in tribal communities nationwide. Native Americans suffer tooth decay at three times the national average, Cladoosby said.