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Summit participants address American Indian/Alaska Native oral health issues

Santa Ana Pueblo, N.M.—"What are we going to do, both individually and collectively, to improve access to dental treatment and prevention strategies that address the oral health of American Indian and Alaska Native people?"

This was the overarching question posed to 88 participants at the first American Indian/Alaska Native Oral Health Access Summit hosted by the American Dental Association Nov. 12-14, 2007, in Santa Ana Pueblo.

Participants and observers included representatives from local tribal health programs, the Indian Health Service, state dental societies, dental specialty and other dental organizations, regional Indian health boards and philanthropic organizations, dental educators and the ADA.

"For me, previously working as a Commissioned Corps dentist on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and now in private practice, this conference was the first step toward bridging the awareness gap between the private practice and public health sectors of the dental profession," said Dr. David Keim of Kalispell, Mont., a Montana Dental Association representative. "The oral health disparities between the Native American and general populations are alarming, and as health care providers I feel it is our obligation to works toward a solution."

"It was wonderful to see all these people come together and agree on things," said Dr. Alyssa York, dental director for the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona. "Hope is coming."

In her first year of service with the council, which serves 20 tribes statewide, Dr. York has seen growth in programs that include a school-based sealant and fluoride varnish program, a community toothbrushing instruction and fluoride varnish program for babies and new mothers, a chlorhexidine rinse program and several cancer screening programs for older adults.

"I'm just trying to do what I can. I've seen improvement in a year. Oral health education is an important part of that."

She is chair of the summit's dental workforce work group.

"I think the summit was well-planned and facilitated and the outcome was positive as far as how everyone was able to agree on developing and joining work groups," Dr. York added. "I'm looking forward to the strategic work group meeting that's coming up."

With a perspective not only as a dentist, but also as a patient who received care from Indian Health Service clinics growing up, Dr. Ruth Bol of Venice, Calif., represented the Society of American Indian Dentists at the summit.

"I found wonderful mentors and received IHS scholarships in undergraduate and graduate school," said Dr. Bol. "I felt it was important to get involved with SAID from the very beginning.

"This is very important to me," she added. "Some of the friends I made at the summit are now working directly with us. Bringing all areas of dentistry leaders and tribal leaders together to the table is the way to work toward taking care of the oral health of American Indians and Alaska Natives."

Participants are building on the foundations laid at the summit, serving on a variety of action teams that continue to meet and brainstorm on seven key focus areas:

  • creating a new paradigm for improving the dental workforce;
  • developing collaborative strategies for lobbying, funding, policymaking and more;
  • designing research and implementing "best practices" for the prevention of oral disease, including early childhood caries;
  • fostering broader community involvement to identify oral health issues and their solutions;
  • advocating for a fully funded IHS/tribal/urban dental program;
  • building trust among the partners/communities of interest;
  • encouraging meaningful tribal empowerment in oral health policymaking.

 A strategic workgroup will be comprised of leaders from each action team and will meet in April at the ADA Headquarters.

The official summit report is now online and can be viewed and downloaded at