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Letter: ND native youth denied access to dental care

Lack of access to dental care is an everyday reality for me as a Native American youth living in rural North Dakota. In our tribal communities, we stand in line before the sun comes up on Monday mornings for a chance to see a dentist, and even then there are no guarantees. If we are lucky, we get a short visit with the dentist.

Oftentimes, with sporadic care, our children grow up with pain, missing teeth, and associate the dentist with teeth being pulled. Rural communities in North Dakota struggle with the same lack of dental care providers, and the problem is only getting worse.

Thirty percent of counties in North Dakota do not have a dental provider at all. That number will only grow as nearly 50 percent of practicing dentists in North Dakota plan to retire in the next 15 years. Although this problem impacts people throughout the state, Native American youth like me will be impacted disproportionately. Fifty percent of Native American youth already live in federally designated dental shortage areas throughout the country and as areas lose their dentists to retirement or to big cities, that percentage will increase and more young people in rural areas will go without care.

In the face of these challenges, Native American communities are finding safe solutions to oral health needs. Ten years ago, leaders in Alaska created a mid-level provider, like a physician’s assistant or nurse practitioner, to address oral health needs and safely perform care as part of the dentist-led team. Now more than 40,000 people in rural villages, where even electricity is hard to come by, have access to quality dental care.

Even though the model in Alaska is well-known and safe, there are those like the North Dakota Dental Association and the American Dental Association that spend lots of money each year to block rural communities from bringing in mid-level providers. Why are associations standing in the way of children getting the care they need? Some say it comes of concerns about safety, but mid-level providers have been shown in study after study to be a safe option for dental care. Others say there is no shortage of dentists. Maybe they should visit my community.

As a rural youth on my way to medical school, I know that mid-level providers can make a huge difference for our communities by safely providing preventive and routine care. Increasing dental care access is being considered in North Dakota, and I hope that the success of dental therapists in Alaska is something that all of us can benefit from.

Native American youth, like everyone in rural communities, deserve quality dental care. We deserve smiles we can be proud of.

Eagle Shield, Mandan, N.D., is Standing Rock Nation youth advocate with the Center for Native American Youth.