A new dental lab at the University of Maine at Augusta’s center in Lewiston. Photo courtesy of Jim Bradley

AUGUSTA — The University of Maine at Augusta is using funding from three grants to double the number of students in and add a new location for its dental assistant program.

UMA has received more than $200,000 from the University of Maine System’s Program Innovation Fund, Northeast Delta Dental Foundation and Libra Foundation.

The grants allow the program to accept 12 more students, who will go to a new lab in Lewiston, doubling the program’s size.

Until now, the program had 12 openings for students and was based solely in Bangor.

Amanda Willette, coordinator of the dental assistant program, said increasing the size of the program will help fill needs across Maine.

“What UMA is doing for the state is improving access to dental care,” Willette said. “Access to care is an issue, and if you don’t have access to providers, Mainers can’t have the dental care that they need.”

Willette said she receives calls every week from dentists looking to fill positions, and said there is demand for assistants across southern, western and midcoast Maine.

In her six years in her position, Willette said there has been a 100% placement rate for dental assistants.

There are about 354,000 dental assistant jobs across the country, growing at a faster-than-average rate at 7%, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

“The accredited program is more appealing because students that graduate are immediately eligible for their Maine radiology license and can take the National Dental Assisting Board to be a certified assistant,” Willette said.

“Those are the credentials that dentists are looking for, and there is a significant shortage of credentialed assistants.”

Dental assistants help with chairside procedures, including fillings and extractions, and hold key roles in infection control management, according to Willette. Infection control management is increasingly important as the state, nation and world deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Willette said while dentistry is considered a high-risk job during the pandemic, safety measures have helped minimize spread of the coronavirus.

“Dentistry is always ahead of medical in that we don’t think of it, but every procedure is considered a surgical procedure,” she said. “Because of high infection-control standards over time, we have had to increase N95 (mask) and facial shields.

“There have been very few cases reported through the (coronavirus) pandemic of spreads starting in the dental office.”

The dental assistant program expansion is the latest in UMA’s growth in medical offerings. The college recently announced a partnership with the University of Maine at Farmington to offer a bachelor’s degree in nursing, beginning in the fall of 2021.

Adding a second dental lab location should boost the dental assistant program, according to James Bradley, UMA’s director for the Lewiston and Rumford centers.

He said he expected the expansion would be especially appealing for students in the Portland, Brunswick and Oxford Hills areas because of the short commutes to the lab.

Outside of lab work, classes for the two-semester program are online.

Bradley stressed the “uniqueness” of a UMA degree, with a low teacher-to-student ratio that allows students to have a “high level of support.”

The program is scheduled to begin at its new location in January.

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