Dental hygienist Christine Edgecomb takes care of a patient at St. Apollonia Dental Clinic in Presque Isle. Credit: Courtesy of Norma Desjardins

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Aroostook County is facing a critical shortage of qualified dental assistants.

That is why a nonprofit Aroostook dental clinic is partnering with local adult education programs and a Maine dental training business to create the first adult education-based dental assistant program in the state.

Prior to COVID-19, Aroostook dentists had access to a small but reliable group of trained dental assistants and largely avoided a widespread shortage.

But when dental offices reopened in May 2020 after the pandemic lockdown, fewer assistants returned to their jobs for various reasons, including lack of reliable child care, anxiety about contracting COVID-19 or having gained new employment.

While The County is also facing a shortage of dentists, the lack of dental assistants is a problem across Maine and has more widespread consequences. Many dentists run small offices with a full load of daily patients and have no time to train assistants. The Maine departments of Labor and Health and Human Services have identified dental assistants as some of the most needed workers in the health care industry. The Aroostook program could be a model for the rest of the state.

A 2021 survey the two state departments conducted identified insufficient funding for training programs and a lack of available trainers as top barriers preventing Mainers from accessing the necessary health care training.

Though Aroostook has not formally surveyed dental offices to find the exact number of job openings for assistants, Norma Desjardins, executive director of the St. Apollonia Dental Clinic in Presque Isle, has seen many of her colleagues go from being fully staffed prior to 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 applicants, especially trained applicants. There has been some interest from [job seekers], but no one with dental experience.”

St. Apollonia, the only nonprofit clinic in Aroostook, has experienced the effects of being short-staffed. Although the clinic has not had to close due to staffing, Desjardins said that it could easily use another full-time and part-time assistant to take in more patients.

“[Being short-staffed] has certainly led to us not seeing as many patients each day as we could,” Desjardins said. “I would say we are operating at 80 to 85 percent of our capacity.”

Those stories have followed statewide dental industry trends.

Though the Maine Department of Labor is partnering with the Maine Department of Education and colleges and universities to offer health care training, their closest dental assistant program is at York County Community College in Wells. The closest program to Presque Isle is at the University of Maine at Augusta campus in Bangor, more than two hours away.

Starting in June, SAD 1 Adult and Community Education, based at Presque Isle High School, will offer a 10-week dental assistant program that will use technology and in-person experiences to connect students across Aroostook with modern training.

Students will take part in a weekly evening Zoom session with their instructor Amanda Willette, former director of UMA’s dental assistant program and founder of Beyond Compliance, a dental training program partnering with SAD 1. Training will include a live session in SAD 1’s dental lab with Willette and a clinical experience at St. Apollonia.

Though students will have to travel to Presque Isle for the St. Apollonia clinicals, 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 purchase dental equipment for its own lab and for training kits to send to other adult education centers in Aroostook. Students living in more remote areas can take part in the dental lab session using the training kit at their nearest center.

SAD 1 and St. Apollonia will hold informational sessions in May to gauge local interest and sign up some students. They hope to launch the pilot program with at least seven to 10 students.

While other training programs in the state have catered to dental assisting, this will be the first time that adult education centers in Maine will partner 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 meet that need effectively,” Kinney said.

Though this June’s training session is considered a pilot program, Kinney and her 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.

That will be good news for local dentists, St. Apollonia practice manager Julie Tucci said.

“Having to train a dental assistant puts a burden on the dentist,” Tucci said. “They have to show someone sitting next to them how to [be a dental assistant] when they’re trying to work with patients.”