Klamath Tribes Health & Family Services Dental Director oversees a state-of-the-art facility in Klamath Falls

Dr. Thomas Barratt is the Dental Director for Klamath Tribes Health & Family Services. He practiced for about 40 years in private dental practice in Arizona before moving into public health, working a year at San Carlos Apache Healthcare Corporation. Barratt provided a tour to Klamath Tribes News of the glistening, state-of-the-art dental clinic at the Klamath Tribes’ medical facility, the Healing Place, at 6000 New Way in Klamath Falls.

“I really enjoyed it,” said Barratt, commenting on his move to the public health sector. “I worked on an Apache reservation for a year. And then I was looking online, and they [the Klamath Tribes] advertised for a dental director up here in Chiloquin. And then June of 2017, I took the job. I’ve been here since June of 2017.”

Not long into our interview, it is evident that Barratt, 75, is a man who is very enthusiastic about his work. Seeing his work environment, as well as the equipment at his disposal, it is easy to understand his cheerful disposition. And Barratt is passionate about providing care to the people he treats.

“A lot of the patients come from less privileged circumstances,” said Barratt. “So, I really enjoy working with them and helping them – trying to get them to have confidence in themselves. That’s very important when we get confidence in themselves. And once you get their confidence and their trust, they’re the greatest people in the world.”

Barratt cited phobias as an impediment to a patient getting the necessary care. “Dental pain is just terrible,” he said. “And people have a phobia of dentists and you have to get their confidence. You have to get their trust, and they trust me. I’m kind of like your grandpa.”

At the time of this writing, the dental department had 15 employees between the Chiloquin and Klamath Falls locations: three dentists, five hygienists, three front office staff, and four dental assistants. Barratt said hiring two more employees would make operating the two locations even more efficient, before adding that the dental department overall is doing well.

At the early stages of the Klamath Falls facility’s grand opening in May of last year, the dental department only handled emergencies for its initial three months. In October 2023 the dental department began full services.

Full services cover what a dental patient would expect at any average dental practice: conducting routine check-ups and teeth cleanings, filling cavities, ordering and interpreting X-rays, and repairing or removing damaged teeth. Though Barratt pointed out that patients requiring special extractions may be referred to an oral surgeon, special root canals to endodontists, and some young children may require a pediatric dentist.

The facility in Klamath Falls has seven operatories, like the dental clinic in Chiloquin at the Wellness Center, with up to date equipment. Prevailing impressions are the Klamath Tribes has spared no expense in assuring quality access and care to its tribal members.

“So, these are our seven operatories and each one of them is exactly the same,” said Barratt while providing a tour of the New Way dental facility. “And they all have the most up to date equipment. “They’re the most modern – I’ve never had anything this nice,” Barratt said glowingly. “This is what you’d see in a private office. Everything is up to date – modern and new.”

Most dental drills, or handpieces, are driven by air and cause a high whirring sound that pervades dental practices, highly off-putting to most dental patients, Barratt explained. “These are quieter, softer,” he said, displaying the electric handpieces he uses as opposed to air turbine handpieces. “And electric doesn’t torque down. With an air-driven handpiece, if you torque it down, it slows down or you put too much pressure on it, but electric handpieces just keep turning.” And the result is a more relaxed patient.

There are seven operatories in the Klamath Falls’ New Way facility. (Ken Smith/Klamath Tribes News)

There is a separate room each for the sterilization of tools and carrying out particular X-rays, but otherwise most everything is done within each operatory. X-rays are digital and they are interpreted from a computer screen within the operating space so there is no need of chemicals for developing the image, said Barratt.

Panoramic X-rays are carried out in a separate room. Instead of doing an X-ray for each bite, which can get quite exhausting on the jaw of the patient, a panoramic X-ray machine will rotate around the patient’s head, capturing a 3D X-ray image in the process.

Barratt also described a pilot program, the Dental Therapy Program, in which his dental department is involved. The goal is to instill interest in the dental field amongst tribal members. “They’re creating schools in Washington,” he said, “where tribal members can go to school to become dental assistants, dental hygienists, and they have one program called Dental Health Aide Therapist which is like a dentist. They can take a tribal member. And they can do some of the things that a dentist does, like they can do some fillings. They can do some extractions – simple fillings, simple extractions. And they’re supervised by the dentists.”

In public health – and particularly the 43 tribes in Idaho, Oregon and Washington – minimal invasive dentistry is practiced, Barratt said. “There are certain chemicals you can paint on a child’s teeth when they get a small cavity and you don’t have to fill it. You put this chemical on it, and it stops the cavity.”

This minimally invasive technique is not yet widely adopted in private practice because, according to Barratt, there is no profit to be earned, yet. “With public health, we’re here to help the people, not make money,” he said.

Barratt has practiced in the dental field for decades, and his sense of duty and appreciation shows no signs of waning.

“It’s great,” he said. “The tribal members can come here. It’s free. They don’t have to worry about financial involvement. This tribe is so generous to its tribal members and to its employees. I’m an employee, and I so appreciate Klamath Tribes Health & Family Services because they are so generous to their employees – so kind and just a wonderful organization to work for.”