GSDM aims to address dental assistant shortage with training program

One could say that the dental assistant is the right hand of the dentist—or, perhaps, a mind reader. 

“They’re there to help the dentist by anticipating their needs, preparing for procedures, and if they’re a good assistant, actually allowing the dentist to do better dentistry,” said Dr. Margaret Errante, associate dean for Quality Management, Compliance & Continuing Education at Boston University Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine (GSDM). 

But what happens when the right hand—the mind reader—goes missing? Dentists in states including North Dakota, Oregon, and Washington have reported difficulties hiring dental assistants. 

At the same time, employment of dental assistants is projected to grow 7 percent from 2019 to 2029, faster than the average for all occupations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook. The aging population and ongoing research linking oral health and general health will lead to continued increases in the demand for preventive dental services.

GSDM is doing its part to address this shortage through its nine-week dental assisting training program, which graduates between 12 and 20 dental assistants each year. 

According to Errante, there are two primary paths to become a dental assistant: completing a formal education program, or receiving on-the-job training at a dental practice. GSDM’s nine-week dental assistant training program is unique, however, in that it offers students a mixture of the two. 

The program begins with four-weeks of didactic work, including courses on infection control, HIPAA, and science, including anatomy. Students also take a basic life support course and a radiology course that is required for a dental-assistant license.

After completing the didactic portion, students transition to the hands-on part of the training program, where they have the opportunity both to observe and to do dental assisting. 

Beetna Kim Baird, business manager in the GSDM Office of Continuing Education, said that one of the advantages of GSDM’s dental assisting program is the exposure it gives students to specialty programs, like endodontics and pediatric dentistry. 

“Not only do [the students] learn directly from our faculty and our dental assistants, but they get experience in the specialty Patient Treatment Centers  as well,” Baird said. 

“They get to work with the GSDM predoctoral dental students as well,” added Joanne Kayden, a program supervisor in the GSDM Office of Continuing Education. “I think when they see others [dental students] learning, they observe the information that the faculty is telling the dental students as well.” 

GSDM continues to make resources available to the dental assisting students after they complete the program, according to Baird. 

“We keep in touch with our past graduates–[when] we receive new jobs, people looking for dental assistants, and we’re also starting to provide CE courses [to them],” Baird said. 

Errante said that GSDM’s program, which was re-established in 2010, teaches students a significant amount of knowledge in a relatively short period of time

“We’re teaching them about dental instruments and materials,   periodontal and restorative charting, dental terminology; a lot of the basic knowledge that gives them a tremendous head start,” she said. “It provides  them with a very good foundational knowledge in a timeframe that makes sense for them.”