BANGOR, Maine — Nine ninth-grade students from Penobscot County will have an opportunity this week to explore the dental profession, thanks to a new program being offered by Penobscot Community Health Care on Union Street.
The goal is to plant the early seeds of a career in dentistry. But dental experts caution that the state must take a longer-term approach to the challenge of meeting Maine’s dental care needs.
PCHC’s dental clinic, which serves primarily low-income individuals and those enrolled in Medicaid and Medicare, will host the three-day “dental academy” beginning today. The program will wrap up on Thursday.
The aim, according to program coordinator Arlene Luzzi, is to encourage youngsters from an early age to consider a career in dentistry.
“We are looking to them to become part of Maine’s next generation of dental professionals,” Luzzi said.
The students will spend time in a classroom setting as well as working with dental molds in the PCHC dental laboratory and job shadowing dental residents, she said. In addition, they will receive academic counseling from the University of Maine to help them prepare for a career in dental medicine.
Programs like this serve an important role in countering the difficulty of attracting new dentists to Maine, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. While it is difficult to quantify the issue accurately, there is no doubt that most young dentists prefer to settle in a more populated area with a more affluent population than most regions of Maine can boast.
“We know there is a problem,” said Judy Feinstein, director of the oral health program for the Maine Center of Disease Control and Prevention. Recruiting dentists to a rural state with a relatively low per capita income is not easy, she said, and close to half of the practicing dentists in Maine are nearing retirement.
Part of the solution, she said, is to attract youngsters from Maine into the profession and hope they will choose to practice near their home communities.
“We need to start encouraging Maine’s young people to consider that these careers are possible for them,” Feinstein said. “People come back to practice near their homes because they care about them.”
Augusta pediatric dentist and Maine Dental Association president Jonathan Shenkin said efforts to bring more dentists to Maine are worthwhile but must be accompanied by other measures.
“The shortage of dentists is important,” he said, “but what’s more important is the shortage of people who can afford to get dental care.”
Low-income adults are especially vulnerable, he said, since they can’t afford private insurance or to pay out of their pockets, and the Medicaid program covers children but doesn’t pay for adult dental services. Even public dental clinics like the one at PCHC charge more than many people can afford for basic care, he said.
More public funding for dental services and dental insurance is needed to ensure that Americans get the care they need to keep their teeth and gums healthy, Shenkin said.
In addition, Shenkin said, more must be done to prevent oral and dental disease, including instituting public health measures that promote regular brushing and flossing, improve nutrition and reduce smoking.