Dental practices are facing labor shortages that are delaying routine care for some patients, and the delays can stretch on for several months. The shortages are compounded by what dentists describe as higher-than-normal patient demand because of care that was deferred early in the pandemic.
The shortages are affecting a range of positions, from hygienists to dental assistants to front office personnel. Jeffrey Karen, a pediatric dentist in South Weymouth and a trustee for the Massachusetts Dental Society, said this is a particular problem because dental procedures often can’t be done without an assistant present.
“I’ve been practicing for about 15, 20 years now, and I would say this is pretty much the worst I’ve seen it,” Karen said, noting that wait times for care vary greatly from one practice to the next.
At the Boston University Dental Health Center, patients won’t find appointments for a cleaning until 2023, unless there is a cancellation. Kelly Marcinkewich, the center’s associate director, attributed much of the issue to the pandemic driving staff to leave the field.
“We have observed during the COVID-19 pandemic a realignment of the region’s workforce away from certain types of jobs in healthcare, which we believe has caused an industry-wide staffing shortage that is affecting many local dental practices, including ours,” Marcinkewich wrote in an email. “At the same time, there has been an increase in the number of patients seeking appointments for exams or cleanings that they delayed earlier in the pandemic.”
The dental health center serves some Boston University students and employees, including staff at WBUR.
Pamela Maragliano-Muniz, a dentist in Salem, said delays until 2023 are on the extreme end of the spectrum, but staffing issues are “widespread” in the field. Based on conversations with her colleagues, she said, “It seems like most practices are looking for help.”
The staff shortages are not just a local or regional problem.
“That’s absolutely issue number one,” said Marko Vujicic, the chief economist and vice president of the Health Policy Institute at the American Dental Association.
Vujicic said roughly 40% of dental practices nationwide report having open positions and say they are looking to hire new staff members. Among practices with openings, 90% report it is extremely difficult to find workers.
“That’s an astronomically high number,” he said. “And frankly, it’s not going to go away overnight, and it’s affecting patients.”
The Massachusetts Dental Society is in the early phases of rolling out a campaign to attract more high school graduates to the field. In particular, the hope is to draw more people to train as dental assistants.
“There are plenty of [dental] assisting schools in our state, but a lot of them are having trouble filling their classes,” the group’s trusteeKaren said.
For dentists in Massachusetts to operate at full capacity, the number of dental assistants would have to double, according to Karen. At a minimum, he’d like to see the number of dental assistants increase from the roughly 9,500 that are currently licensed statewide to 19,000.
The plan, Karen said, is to launch an advertising campaign in the next month on platforms like YouTube, TikTok and Snapchat as well as work with high school guidance counselors to elevate the profile of the profession.
“The goal of what we’re trying to do with this whole advertising campaign is to prevent an access to care problem,” Karen said.