By Erin Freeman | Lynnwood Times Staff
Fueled by a purpose to strengthen access and opportunities for necessary dental care, Tulalip tribal member Inga Weddle is combining her unique knowledge of her tribe with an innovative model for affordable dental care.
“Providing safe and affordable care is what inspired me,” said Weddle. “Our people are waiting too long to see a provider and it costs them to lose their teeth and have bad experiences. Having more providers lets us get ahead of the decay and do more prevention so that more people are happy to come to the dentist and take care of their oral health.”
In 2015, Weddle began working at the Tulalip Health Clinic where she noticed disparities in tribal members’ access to oral health professionals. Deciding to become a healthcare professional herself, she left the clinic in 2016 to complete her prerequisites for dental hygiene. In pursuit of this, Weddle learned about a dental therapy program in Alaska, that trained people from areas with limited access to dental care, allowing them to return to their communities to provide it.
“I noticed that there was a big need for providers and was inspired by the people here,” said Weddle. “I wanted to help out… when I heard what dental therapy was doing for people in Alaskans, I wanted to bring that home to my people.
Dental therapists are currently working in tribal communities in Washington and in Alaska, Oregon, and Minnesota, educating their communities about oral health, performing evaluations, supplying fluoride treatments, cleaning teeth, placing fillings, and performing simple extractions. They perform nearly 60% of the same duties as a dentist does, allowing increased access to basic care, says Weddle.
In the Tulalip Tribe, Weddle serves as the only acting dental therapist, providing care to cut down on month-long wait times to see a dentist and increase access to basic dental care. In the coming years, she hopes provider numbers will grow to five therapists per dentist, expanding access to oral healthcare services throughout the community.
“Right now, my people are waiting for months to just get an appointment to see a provider,” said Weddle. “I’m hoping that I can help out our community right now, and we can see how through utilizing dental therapy, we can serve our people more effectively.”
Dental therapists were introduced in Washington in 2017 when State lawmakers passed Senate Bill 5079 to create a path toward better access to health care in Tribal settings throughout the state. In addition to the Tulalip Tribe, therapists now work for the Colville Tribes, Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, Lummi Nation, Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, and the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community.
According to Anand Balasubrahmanyan from the Statewide Poverty Action Network, the system that six Washington tribes have implemented using dental therapists to expand care is an approach now being considered for statewide use by the legislature.