Dr. Ashley has long recognized the importance of building support for oral health care from within the community itself. She identified a staffing shortage in 2003 as an opportunity to build from within and created a program to train dental assistants through the Ilisagvik College.

Today Dr. Amanda Gaynor Ashley, Director of the Barrow Dental Clinic at Arctic Slope Native Association’s Samuel Simmonds Memorial Hospital is en route to Washington, DC, preparing to accept a prestigious national award later in the week.  She is one of 10 individuals selected by Robert Wood Johnson Foundation this year to be honored with its Community Health Leader (CHL) award. Dr. Ashley is only the second Alaskan to receive the award.

What exactly made her stand out among the 532 nominees?

The CHL panelists recognized that Dr. Ashley serves at the helm of a dental clinic that’s forging new ground. In the last eight years, she has taken traditional Western oral health models and modified them in terms of sensitivity for Alaska Native cultures. The result has been dramatically improved oral health in the North Slope Borough, 89,000 square miles inside the Arctic Circle where the sun doesn’t rise for close to three months each winter.

Dr. Ashley arrived in Barrow in 1999 and became dental director in 2001. In eight years, she’s invigorated and re-designed programs in three target areas: community outreach to dental patients-both children and adults; recruitment of staff dentists, dental assistants (the latter through a partnership with the neighboring tribal college); and the establishment of auxiliary clinics in five villages outside of Barrow, where the main clinic has operated since 1964.

Dr. Ashley says she knew immediately upon her plane breaking through the clouds that she was landing in a special place. She had arrived in Barrow for a dental internship through the Indian Health Service and was immediately touched by the warmth of the people she encountered. In a field where public health dentists are rare and those willing to commit to remote outposts even more unusual, she stayed on well beyond the three-year mark when most IHS dentists leave for more lucrative jobs. Ten years later, she calls Barrow her home.

After two years as a staff dentist, she was selected in her mid-twenties to head up the entire clinic. A self-professed organizer, she immediately put a strategic plan into place to tackle the problems she’d witnessed firsthand. With dogged determination over the next eight years, she built a system that addressed urgent dental care needs and formulated a preventative care program, which is thoughtful, compassionate and culturally appropriate.

For much of this work, Dr. Ashley was stepping into the abyss – going where very few have gone before in terms of shaping their dental practice to serve an indigenous culture. She had precious few peers or mentors to turn to when plans went amiss. She simply re-evaluated and tried a new method. The results have been dazzling.

Dr. Ashley has long recognized the importance of building support for oral health care from within the community itself, rather than constantly bringing in professionals from “Outside”. She identified a staffing shortage in 2003 as an opportunity to build from within and created a program to train dental assistants through the Ilisagvik College-a rarity at tribal colleges. Students complete a two-week course for college credit and become certified to assist in the dental clinic or any other department at the hospital. This workforce development program has graduated six classes.

For students, especially those who have not graduated from high school or received a certificate before, graduation is a proud moment. The clinic employs six full-time dental assistants and eight part-time assistants. These assistants are seen as future health leaders in the community-participating in health outreach programs around the North Slope.

Students are also given professional development opportunities, such as attending conferences in the “Lower 48” states. Three former dental assistants are pursuing careers in dentistry while others took their job skills and moved to other areas of the hospital. Her program graduates are now working to support numerous areas of the health care system in Alaska.

Through all this, she accomplished what no other dentist at the Samuel Simmons Memorial Hospital had achieved since the hospital was founded 45 years ago: delivering modern dental care to 68 percent of the population of Barrow and five outlying villages – Atqasuk, Kaktovik, Nuiqsut, Point Lay and Wainwright – in 2008.

The Community Health Leaders program supports and sustains the capacity of individuals who demonstrate creativity, innovation, and commitment to improving health outcomes at the community level. Each CHL award totals $125,000, comprised of $105,000 to support a defined project at the organization with which the leader is affiliated, and $20,000 directly to the leader for personal development.

Dr. Ashley already knows how she’d like to direct the funds: “We’re looking to expand the prevention programs and the outreach programs, especially directed at the kids,” she says. “Whatever I do with it I’d like to make sure it’s a sustainable thing, not a one-time improvement.”

Do you know of an innovative health leader in your community? Tell us about it here, and consider nominating deserving individuals by clicking here.