PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Aroostook County is facing a severe shortage of qualified dental assistants.
That’s why a non-profit dental clinic in Aroostook is partnering with local adult education programs and a Maine dental training company to create the first dental assisting program based on the education of adults in the state.
Prior to COVID-19, Aroostook dentists had access to a small but reliable pool of trained dental assistants and largely avoided widespread shortages.
But when dental practices reopened in May 2020 after the pandemic lockdown, fewer assistants returned to work for a variety of reasons including lack of reliable childcare, anxiety over contracting COVID-19 or finding a new job.
While the county also faces a shortage of dentists, the lack of dental assistants is a problem throughout Maine and has more widespread consequences. Many dentists run small practices with a full daily patient load and don’t have the time to train assistants. The Maine Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services have identified dental assistants as some of the most in-demand workers in the health care industry. The Aroostook program could be a model for the rest of the state.
A 2021 survey conducted by both state departments identified insufficient funding for training programs and a lack of available trainers as key barriers preventing Mainers from accessing necessary healthcare training.
Although Aroostook hasn’t officially surveyed dental practices to find the exact number of assistant job openings, Norma Desjardins, executive director of St. Apollonia dental clinic in Près Isle, saw many of her colleagues go from being fully staffed before the pandemic to struggling to hire assistants two years later.
“The need is dire,” Desjardins said. “There are dentists who need to hire immediately, but there is no pool of candidates, especially trained candidates. There has been some interest from [job seekers]but no one has any dental experience.
St. Apollonia, Aroostook’s only nonprofit clinic, has suffered the effects of understaffing. Although the clinic didn’t have to close due to staffing shortages, Desjardins said she could easily use another full-time and part-time assistant to accommodate more patients.
“[Being short-staffed] definitely caused us to not see as many patients every day as we could,” Desjardins said. “I would say we are operating at 80-85% capacity.”
These stories followed trends in the statewide dental industry.
Although the Maine Department of Labor partners with the Maine Department of Education and colleges and universities to provide health care training, their closest dental assistant program is at York County Community College in Wells. The closest program to Près Isle is at the University of Maine at the Augusta campus in Bangor, over two hours away.
Starting in June, SAD 1 Adult and Community Education, based at Près Isle High School, will offer a 10-week dental assistant program that will use technology and in-person experiences to connect Aroostook students to modern training.
Students will participate in a weekly evening Zoom session with their instructor Amanda Willette, former director of the WBU dental assistant program and founder of Beyond Compliance, a dental training program in partnership with SAD 1. The training will include a session live in the dental lab of SAD 1 with Willette and clinical experience at St. Apollonia.
Although students will have to travel to Près Isle for clinics in St. Apollonia, those who live farther away can complete the majority of their training at adult education centers in Houlton, Caribou, Van Buren, Fort Kent and Madawaska. .
SAD 1 is using part of a $300,000 Workforce Innovation Grant from the Maine Department of Education to buy dental equipment for its own lab and for training kits to send to d other adult education centers in Aroostook. Students living in more remote areas can participate in the dental lab session using the training kit at the nearest center.
SAD 1 and St. Apollonia will hold information sessions in May to gauge local interest and enroll some students. They hope to launch the pilot program with at least seven to ten students.
While other training programs in the state have taken on dental assisting, this will be the first time Adult Education Centers in Maine have partnered for their own program, said LeRae Kinney, director of SAD 1 Adult and Community Education.
“What I love about our community is that when we discover a need, we figure out how to respond to it effectively,” Kinney said.
Although the June training session is considered a pilot program, Kinney and his colleagues want to offer two or three sessions per year and expand to other clinical sites in Aroostook.
They also hope it will become a model for other adult education programs in the state.
This will be good news for local dentists, said Julie Tucci, director of the St. Apollonia practice.
“Having to train a dental assistant is a burden on the dentist,” Tucci said. “They have to show someone sitting next to them how [be a dental assistant] when they try to work with patients.