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Nicole Kimmes is acting dean of the University of New England College of Dentistry.
Maine last week joined 19 other states when it expanded Medicaid coverage for dental care, making nearly a quarter of a million more Mainers eligible for preventive and routine oral health services. But even as access to care expands, Maine continues to face a shortage of licensed dentists, which means being seen by a dentist will still be difficult for many Maine residents. Meeting this challenge continues to be the driving force behind the work of the University of New England College of Dentistry, which will begin admitting more students next year.
The UNE College of Dentistry was started in response to 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, workforce projections indicated that more dentists would retire than new graduates would enter the workforce by 2014. Today, despite small gains, Maine still faces to a dramatic need to develop its pipeline of dentists. According to the Bureau of Health Workforce Health Resources and Services Administration of 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 dental care needs in these geographic areas, we need 58 additional practitioners available and able to see patients.
The need is not limited 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 inhabitants in Maine, while the national number was 60.8 dentists per 100,000 people.
In short, this means that too many Mainers are unable to easily and regularly access dental care, leading to skipped visits, overlooked issues and greater long-term consequences when routine issues become needs. emergency. At UNE, we take seriously the role and responsibility of our students in creating an oral health safety net for Maine residents, especially those who are underserved.
In nearly 10 years, the UNE College of Dentistry has trained future dentists, we have graduated 377. Of these, nearly a quarter are licensed to practice in Maine. In 2021, approximately 40% of our dental graduates practicing in Maine do so in underserved areas.
But even before graduation, our students work to serve the most underserved. UNE dental students, under the supervision of licensed dentists, have performed more than 335,000 patient procedures between the Portland Oral Health Center and affiliated outpatient clinical sites in northern New England . Nearly a third of patients seen at the center are covered by MaineCare. Additionally, students who serve in our established network of community education sites have enabled clinics to increase the number of MaineCare patients who can receive care; reduction in patient waiting times for appointments; and allowed more dental care given or reduced fees for expensive procedures.
We are proud of how we serve our fellow Mainers, but we are acutely aware that more needs to be done. To that end, we are excited to expand the UNE College of Dentistry to accommodate more dental students in our program. We are currently renovating our Portland facilities to accommodate eight additional students per year by fall 2023. Six of these students will enroll in our traditional four-year DMD program, and two will enroll in our Advanced Standing Track program, which gives foreign-trained dentists the opportunity to become licensed in the United States in just over two years. This will mean more dental students treating patients in rural and underserved areas of northern New England, and ultimately, more licensed dentists in Maine helping deliver on MaineCare’s promise to expand to cover the routine dental services.