Michigan Resident Relocates to Washington State to Attain Dental Therapy Education

Meet Jamie Toney, a dental therapy student at the dəxʷx̌ayəbus-Dental Therapy Program at Skagit Valley College. Jamie's dental experience began in 1995 when she started as a co-op student in high school, handling front desk duties and scheduling patients. Her experiences led to an opportunity as a dental assistant in Detroit. Jamie engaged in various roles, including dental assistant, patient coordinator, biller, and practice administrator. This diverse experience set the foundation for her to manage the startup of four dental offices. Jamie pursued research at the University of Michigan, focusing on health disparities among Detroit residents. Within seven years of intensive studies, she felt inspired to pursue a career in oral health, as many in her community struggle with oral health issues.

Jamie's decision to study dental therapy and move across the country, leaving behind family and life in Detroit, was a leap of faith in believing in the profession. Many in the cohort have left their hometowns to pursue dental therapy and fight the health disparities in their communities. Born and raised in Detroit, she fondly recalls attending sports games around Christmas and spending the holidays with her loved ones. The hardest part about leaving was being away from her two children, ages 2 and 22. Despite the challenges of moving across the country, Jamie embraced this leap of faith in her mid-40s, firmly believing in the impact of dental therapy.

The experience of moving to Washington was both challenging and rewarding for Jamie. Navigating transportation challenges and budgeting, Jamie gradually adapted to the new community. The dəxʷx̌ayəbus-Dental Therapy Program cohort became a source of support and collaboration, exchanging ideas, resources, and insights, specifically the Diversity Center at Skagit Valley College.

Jamie shared her experience working with children and adults with special needs. Many of whom are in dire need of oral health care. She described seeing a 12-month-long waitlist for professional dental care. She emphasizes concern for fragile populations, such as patients with disabilities, who are often neglected and forgotten about in a broader scope. During her immersion training, she also witnessed how long Medicaid patients had to wait to receive care while their health continued to deteriorate. These disparities increased her desire to improve oral health care and become a provider.

As part of the second cohort for the dəxʷx̌ayəbus-Dental Therapy Program, Jamie shares insights into a dental therapy student's day-to-day life, including a 40-hour schedule with classes, clinics, and labs. Anticipating graduation in December 2025, Jamie reflects on her favorite aspects of the program. The communication class focused on community-based learning, and the hands-on experience in the clinic with Dr. Mabry and Dr. Vendiola was memorable. Engaging with diverse backgrounds in the program has provided a rich learning environment as the class teaches students how communication can be interpreted in various cultures.

Moreover, the professor of this course creates a safe space and welcoming environment for students to be open. The professor educates the students on Native American culture as Skagit Valley College is on Native American land. One crucial aspect Jamie took away from this class is how your communication can come across and be interpreted differently by various cultures and people.

As dental therapy students, they can meet staff at a dental clinic and connect with them one-on-one. During labs, the professor creates an open environment where students can ask questions. Jamie emphasizes the importance of having a community and support system. The professors and students in the dental therapy cohort provide a welcome and safe space.

Jamie emphasizes the importance of researching state laws and education programs when considering dental therapy. She encourages prospective students to evaluate long-term goals, costs, and financial readiness. Drawing from her own experience, she highlights the misconception that people entering dental therapy should be more qualified. Many students in the cohort have extensive backgrounds in the dental industry, challenging this assumption.

Jamie envisions dental therapists as critical players in changing oral healthcare delivery. Her experiences in public health and immersion training have shaped her perspective on the impact of dental therapists, especially in addressing inequalities and increasing access to care. The goal is to shift towards a more personalized and preventative care model. Integrating dental therapists into dental clinics would change care delivery and the structure of healthcare models. In the long term, dental therapists will aid and be forerunners of value-based care in oral health, educating patients on preventative care, preventing emergency care, and working in an oral health care team. Dental therapists can individualize and personalize dental visits.

Jamie plans to return to Michigan after graduating from her dental therapy program. Until then, she will undergo a preceptorship and complete the hours needed to graduate. Her ultimate goal is to apply for the dental therapy exam in Michigan and seek opportunities aligned with her commitment to community well-being and public health.

Jamie advises individuals considering a career change not to let their age be a deterrent. She encourages prospective dental therapy students, especially those from underrepresented communities, to take a leap of faith, challenge the status quo, and contribute to the field's diversity and growth. Jamie is an inspiring example of determination, resilience, and a commitment to positively impacting oral health in her community.

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