Dental care for Indian reservation

More than 2 million Native Americans lived in counties with dental care shortages in 2014, according to the Center for Native American Youth.

Established in 2003, Northern Arizona University’s (NAU) Hopi Program allows dental hygiene students to serve Hopi Health Care Center patients, many of whom have not received adequate dental hygiene services.

“It is a rotation for dental hygiene students to travel to the Hopi reservation to provide dental services at the Indian health service clinic,” Denise Muesch, RDH, Ed.D, Department of Dental Hygiene professor at Northern Arizona University, said.  

The students stay at an NAU-owned trailer near the Hopi Health Care Center and participate in a three-day rotation to provide dental hygiene services to the patients.  

“It’s the longest running public health project with NAU,” Helm said.

The NAU Dental Hygiene Department, the John and Sophie Ottens Foundation, the Hopi Indian Health Services and Hopi Housing Authority worked together to kickstart the program, according to Helm.

“There was a lot of logistics involved and a lot of planning and we wanted to make sure that the first time out worked really well and that there were no problems,” Helm said.

She added, “Of course, the dental hygiene students have been great. I don’t ever recall hearing about a student that had problems while they were out there, they’ve adapted really well. And, most of them really enjoy the experience.”

The John and Sophie Ottens Foundation has funded the program since its establishment 16 years ago.

“About three years ago, they agreed to fund the project in perpetuity. So, we have ongoing funding on the project so there will always be money to move this project forward. So, that’s really exciting,” Helm said.   

“It’s an interesting project because it’s a win-win both for the students and for the Hopi Health Center because they are able to get the services at the Hopi Health Center that the patients need without hiring a dental hygienist,” Helm said.

She added, “And the ‘win’ part for the students is they get to experience patients from a different culture… And also, they get to see patients that have a little more complex health history and also have a little more complex dental disease than they might see in the on-campus clinic.”

In addition to gaining experience, the students also have the opportunity to work with patients who have different beliefs and backgrounds.

“I think there’s nothing better than the hands-on experience of working with individuals from a different culture and having different belief systems.”

The program is intended not only to provide the students with dental hygiene practice, but to learn about- and engage with- the Hopi culture.

“It helps students understand that people that are different than them are not necessarily scary, that they are people as well,” Helm said. “So, I think that really helps them with that actual experience instead of just learning from a book what it’s like to work with folks from a different culture.”

The program’s focus on embracing diversity, especially with the Native American community, and providing experiential learning upholds NAU’s values.

“It is a great alignment with the mission and the goals of the university. It gives [the students] the opportunity to see the world through a different lens,” Helm said.

Sierra Ciaramella

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