Washington State Dental Therapy Progress Illustrates Undeniable Momentum toward a More Equitable Oral Health System


Sept. 8, 2022

CONTACT: Jack Cardinal, (781) 960-5208, jcardinal@communitycatalyst.org

“Dental therapy is proof that people, not the health system, know what’s best for communities” - Emily Stewart of Community Catalyst

(BOSTON, MA) –– Following years of organizing and action by the Swinomish Tribe and the Washington Dental Access Campaign, Community Catalyst is celebrating the news that Skagit Valley College, a public college in Washington state, received accreditation for their dental therapy program by the American Dental Association’s Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA), which accredits U.S. dental education programs. It is the second dental therapy program in the nation to receive accreditation from CODA.

“Through a collaborative effort with the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and many others, we are very proud of what we have created," said Skagit Valley College President Dr. Christopher Villa. "The Dental Therapy program is a high-quality, accessible education program tailored to the needs of students from Tribal communities and other underserved Washington communities which will not only improve access to dental care but set our students up for good-paying jobs."

“Dental therapy is a textbook example of the power that communities most harmed by the current health system have when they’re supported and allowed to develop and drive their own solutions,” said Community Catalyst Executive Director Emily Stewart. “Like the Tribal-led program in Alaska, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and coalition partners face stern opposition from organized dentistry but continue to prevail in creating a community-informed oral health system that helps address deep and longstanding health inequities.”

Skagit Valley College’s CODA accreditation follows that of Iḷisaġvik College in Utqiaġvik, Alaska. Community Catalyst rallied state, national and Tribal supporters to pressure CODA to establish standards which reflected the experience of dental therapy and dental therapists already practicing in both Tribal and non-Tribal settings. At present, dental therapists are authorized to work in 13 states with many more moving in the same direction. In Washington state, dental therapists are currently restricted to practicing in the Tribal health care system but there are safety-net clinics across the state calling for the expansion of dental therapy so that all communities can benefit from the opportunities afforded by dental therapy. This accreditation, by the same entity that approves all education programs for dentists and dental hygienists, reinforces the fact dental therapists are skilled, well-trained providers who provide high-quality care. This news follows a new report from a federal advisory committee to Congress and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) calling on the bodies to do more to support the growing field of practice.

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About Community Catalyst: Community Catalyst is a leading non-profit national health advocacy organization dedicated to advancing a movement for health equity and justice. We partner with local, state and national advocates to leverage and build power so all people can influence decisions that affect their health. Health systems will not be accountable to people without a fully engaged and organized community voice. That’s why we work every day to ensure people’s interests are represented wherever important decisions about health and health care are made: in communities, state houses and on Capitol Hill. For more information, visit http://www.communitycatalyst.org. Follow us on Twitter @CommCatHealth.


  • This program is a unique partnership between Skagit Valley College (a public college) and the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community. The Tribe’s clinic serves as the clinical training location for the program and it was the Tribe that originally conceived of the idea of creating an education program that could educate their community members and they found support in Skagit Valley College for this kind of community-led workforce development.
  • As a CODA accredited program, Skagit Valley can educate students from other states, too.
  • According to Skagit Valley, post-graduation salaries for students who complete the dental therapy program are some of the highest of all the college’s programs – and the return-on-investment benefits both students and their communities.
  • The program offers three academic years of instruction in two calendar years and was specifically tailored to the needs of students (particularly low-income and first-generation college students) so as to keep down costs and time so students can start working and earning a salary quickly.
  • Under Washington state law at this time, dental therapists are only allowed to work in Tribal clinics, on Tribal land and treat Tribal members, which means gaps will remain for Washingtonians who do not have access to regular dental care.
  • This is only the second dental therapy program to receive accreditation from CODA and when it opens its doors next month will be the fifth dental therapy education program in the U.S.
  • The Swinomish Tribe was the first Tribe in the Lower 48 to hire a dental therapist. In 2016, they authorized dental therapy in their Tribal code (as permitted be sovereignty).
  • In 2017, Washington state passed a law authorizing dental therapists in Tribal communities.

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