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Nicole Kimmes is the interim dean of the University of New England College of Dental Medicine.
Last week, Maine joined 19 other states when it expanded Medicaid coverage to dental care, making nearly a quarter million more Mainers eligible for preventive and routine oral health services. But even as access to care is being expanded, Maine continues to face a shortage of licensed dentists, meaning that actually being seen by a dentist will still be difficult for many Mainers. Responding to this challenge continues to be the animating force behind the work of the University of New England College of Dental Medicine, which will begin admitting more students next year.
UNE’s College of Dental Medicine was launched to address the aging dental workforce and the urgent need to build a pipeline of well-trained dentists to serve Maine and northern New England. In 2010, Maine voters approved a $5 million bond package to help expand dental clinics in Maine, with $3.5 million going to UNE to establish a dental school. At the time, labor projections indicated that more dentists would be retiring than new graduates would be entering the workforce by 2014. Today, despite small gains, Maine still faces a dramatic need to build its dentist pipeline. According to the Bureau of Health Workforce Health Resources and Services Administration at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Maine currently has 93 dental health professional shortage areas with a total population of 373,553 people. In order to meet the need for dental care in these geographic areas, we need 58 additional practitioners available and able to see patients.
The need is not confined just to these geographic areas. According to the American Dental Association Health Policy Institute, in 2021, there were 752 dentists in Maine to support a population of 1,372,247 people. This is 54.8 dentists per 100,000 people in Maine, while the national number was 60.8 dentists per 100,000 people.
In short, this means that too many Mainers are not able to easily and regularly access dental care, leading to skipped visits, ignored issues, and larger long-term consequences when routine matters become emergency needs. At UNE, we take seriously the role and responsibility our students have in creating an oral health safety net for Maine residents, particularly for those who are underserved.
In the nearly 10 years UNE’s College of Dental Medicine has been educating future dentists, we’ve graduated 377. Of those, nearly a quarter are licensed to practice in Maine. As of 2021, about 40 percent of our dental medicine graduates who are practicing in Maine are doing so in underserved areas.
But even before graduation, our students are working to serve those most underserved. UNE dental students, under the supervision of licensed dentists, have completed more than 335,000 patient procedures between the Oral Health Center in Portland and affiliated external clinical sites throughout northern New England. Almost a third of patients seen at the center are covered by MaineCare. In addition, students who serve in our established network of community-based education sites have enabled clinics to increase the number of MaineCare patients who can receive care; reduced patient wait times for appointments; and allowed for more donated dental care or reduced fees for high-cost procedures.
We’re proud of how we’re serving our fellow Mainers, but we are acutely aware that more needs to be done. To that end, we are excited to be expanding the UNE College of Dental Medicine to welcome more dental students to our program. We are currently renovating our Portland facilities to accommodate eight more students a year by the fall of 2023. Six of those students will enroll in our traditional, four-year D.M.D. program, and two will enroll in our Advanced Standing Track program, which gives foreign-trained dentists the opportunity to become licensed in the U.S. in just over two years. This will mean more dental students treating patients across rural and underserved regions of northern New England, and ultimately, more licensed dentists in Maine helping to meet the promise of MaineCare’s expansion to cover routine dental services.