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Native American Heritage Month: A Conversation with the Society of American Indian Dentists

At DentaQuest, we’re committed to supporting and increasing access to oral health care and health education in the Native community year round. As part of Native American Heritage Month, which celebrates the rich and diverse cultures, traditions, histories and important contributions of Native people, DentaQuest had the opportunity to speak with Janice Morrow, executive director of the Society of American Indian Dentists (SAID), as well as SAID members Dr. Jessica Bremerman and Dr. Felicia Fontenot, about oral health in the Native population.

Here’s what Dr. Bremerman and Dr. Fontenot had to say about the challenges the Native population faces in oral health and how their Native heritage has influenced their own dental career.

Why did you choose to enter the oral health profession? Did your Native heritage influence that decision at all?

Fontenot: I was enrolled at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and was preparing to take the MCAT for medical school. During that time, I learned that the Native population had the highest oral health disparities of any ethnic group in the U.S. I wanted to make the biggest impact I could on my community's health, and becoming a dentist seemed a great way to do this. For me, becoming a dentist was about addressing these deep inequities and helping people in my community get out of pain.

Bremerman: I actually have a similar story to Dr. Fontenont. Originally, I was considering pursuing pre-med and a career as a doctor — until someone mentioned dentistry to me. I joined the University of Washington pre-dental club and had the opportunity to volunteer and gain firsthand experience in dental clinics near my school. The dean of the dental school had actually spent his career trying to recruit Natives into dental school and was super excited to see my interest in the profession. His reaction to my desire to enter the dental field really opened my eyes to the massive shortage of Native dentists currently practicing or in school.

What unique challenges are faced by this population as a whole?

Bremerman: When it comes to Native oral health, there are a lot of issues stemming from lack of access to care and education around prevention. Many families don’t have transportation available in order to visit the nearest clinic or parents don’t want to bring their children to the dentist — either because they don’t want the care or aren’t educated on the importance of preventive care, especially for young children.

Fontenot: Access to care is a huge barrier. Starting when patients are really young, they don’t have a dedicated dental home where they regularly visit for preventive care — either because there is not a local clinic or the available provider cannot accommodate them. For example, in my community, I’m the solo provider and have over 6,000 people under my service area. I want to help everyone I can, but there is just not enough workforce available to provide oral health care to everyone.

What is the Society of American Indian Dentists doing to confront these challenges?? What kinds of programs or initiatives are in place?

Morrow: Our first goal is to introduce new Native dentists into the profession. We are realizing this goal by offering scholarships in order to grow the number of dental students in upcoming years. One of these scholarships recently covered the costs of preparation classes and testing fees for the Dental Admission Test for eight students, who might not have otherwise been able to afford the full course. SAID also makes it a priority to provide mentorship to young, new members. It’s so important to have peers to learn from and look up to when entering this profession.

Bremerman: During my first year of dental school, I was the only Native student enrolled. Unfortunately, I felt somewhat of a disconnect between myself and my classmates because they didn’t have a similar upbringing or hadn’t faced the struggles I did when I was growing up. Having the SAID community was refreshing and helped me to navigate school and entry into this industry.

What do you love most about being a dentist?

Bremerman: It is so rewarding to see patients I’ve been treating since they were kids grow up. Some of my patients have really struggled in their life, and I’m in a position to hold open and honest conversations with them and let them know that even if they make a bad choice, a good choice or no choice at all, I’ll be here to support you and help you.

Fontenot: I love that I have the opportunity to work with my tribe and make a difference for
those in my community. Even on really, really difficult days, when I’m driving home, I feel fulfilled — I’m never tired or sick of my job. People are so happy and grateful for the work I do, which makes my being a dentist extremely rewarding. As a kid, I sat in the dental chair of the exact room I practice in today. I hope to inspire the children in my community by showing them that they can become a dentist too.

DentaQuest is a supporting sponsor of the Society of American Indian Dentists, a national, non-profit organization comprised of oral health professionals and students dedicated to promoting and improving the oral health of the American Indian/Alaskan Native community and providing advocacy for the American Indian/Alaskan Native dental professionals across the U.S.

About DentaQuest

DentaQuest is a purpose-driven health care company dedicated to improving the oral health of all. We do this through Preventistry® — our inclusive approach to quality care and expanded access built on trusted partnerships between patients, providers and payors. As one of the nation’s largest and most experienced Medicaid dental benefits administrators, we manage dental and vision benefits for more than 33 million Americans through a nationwide network of providers in all 50 states. Our outcomes-based, cost-effective dental solutions are designed for Medicaid and CHIP, Medicare Advantage, small and large businesses, and individuals. At the same time, we are expanding our footprint of more than 70 oral health centers in six states to deliver direct patient care in rural and underserved populations. Learn more at www.DentaQuest.com and follow us on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter.