Pitt’s dental assistant program addresses healthcare professional shortage

Dental assistants are in high demand in the region and the nation, according to Dr. Pamela Tisot. She said dental assistants are integral to the workflow of a successful dental practice.

“Well-trained dental assistants play a critical role in patient care,” said Tisot, assistant professor in the Department of Restorative Dentistry and Comprehensive Care at the School of Dental Medicine. “So, I think it’s a much-needed benefit to the profession.”

The School of Dental Medicine received funding from the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry to train dental assistants through a 14-month paid apprenticeship program. Six dental assistant students, who have yet to be selected, will begin the program in January. According to Kelly Wagner, Pitt Dental Medicine’s program director Dental hygiene programthis program has partnered with the Pittsburgh Public Schools to address the lack of health care professionals and to increase diversity in the dental workforce.

“We’re really trying to focus on the partnership with Pittsburgh Public Schools,” Wagner said. “We really want to build that community with them.”

Applicants to the dental assistant program must be at least 18 years old and have a high school diploma or GED, according to Wagner. She said the dental school is still conducting interviews and reviewing applications and will have the six dental assistant students selected by early November.

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Jim Earle, executive dean of the dental school, said he and others at the dental school began talking to surrounding public high schools in the past year about sending students to participate in a dental assistant apprenticeship program. Earle said he and others have learned that the Department of Labor and Industry offers grant funding for the apprenticeship, which led him and Wagner to write a grant for the funding. Wagner said they received news of the funding in late spring of this year.

While the grant is only intended to fund the program for one year, Earle said he hopes the Department of Labor and Industry sees the success of the dental assistant program and will want to renew the funding for subsequent years to address the shortage of dental assistants. .

“There is such a need for dental assistants right now in the region and the nation,” Earle said.

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According to Wagner, the primary role of a dental assistant is to provide chairside assistance to the dentist.

“They assist with dental procedures that require four hands, clean and disinfect treatment areas, sterilize instruments, prepare patient operators, position patients and update vital signs and medical history,” Wagner said. “Dental assistants are critical to improving the efficiency of patient care in the dental office.”

Wagner said he created a draft dental assistant curriculum, including specific courses and program competencies for enrolled apprentices. Courses will include topics such as dental radiology and dental materials, according to Wagner.

The dental school is in the process of hiring a faculty member to further develop the dental assistant curriculum, create course content, assess learning objectives for each course and teach most of the courses that apprentices take, according to Wagner. She said the dental school has not officially hired this faculty member.

Part of the dental assistant curriculum will include didactic work, preclinical training in simulation dental clinics and chairside work in actual dental clinics, according to Wagner.

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“We really want to get students into the clinical areas as early as we can,” Wagner said. “There will be a didactic component to the program because a goal of the program is that the students are ready to take their license exam at the end of it.”

Tisot said the program will benefit both dental assistant students and other students in the dental school.

“It will be a benefit to our current dental and hygiene students as well to have the help and opportunity to learn to work with an assistant,” Tisot said. “It will benefit him in his transition to private practice.”

Wagner said she hopes the program opens the door for students to pursue other avenues in dentistry, such as attending dental hygiene school or dental school.

According to Tisot, the dental assistant program is a great opportunity for students.

“They will receive more education and on-the-job training and graduate from the program with a highly marketable skill,” Tisot said. “They may realize even more potential for advancement that they haven’t considered before.”

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