The Ohio Dental Association Workforce Working Group is exploring strategies to help address staffing issues in dental offices.

“The working group was formed out of last year’s House of Delegates through the charge of our president, Dr. Tom Kelly,” said Dr. Ben Lamielle, chair of the ODA Workforce Working Group and the Dental Education and Licensure Committee. “Even prior to the pandemic it seemed that it was becoming increasingly difficult for dentists to hire hygienists and quality assistants. With the onset of the pandemic this challenge seems to have grown significantly. The working group’s mission is to identify the source of these challenges and offer ideas and support to our educational institutions and member dentists to help train, retain and find solutions to the staffing problems that we all seem to be facing.”

In September of 2021, the ODA House of Delegates passed a resolution directing the ODA’s Dental Education and Licensure Committee to establish a Workforce Working Group to address the declining numbers of hygienists, assistants, EFDAs and front office personnel looking for work.

“As colleagues, we have all seen a significant decrease in the availability of dental team members (hygienists, assistants, EFDAs, front office personnel), especially over these past 18 months. These shortages put a strain on our practices,” said ODA President Dr. Thomas Kelly in his president-elect’s address to the ODA House of Delegates in September 2021. “It is vital to our profession that we attract new team members to the field of dentistry at an accelerated rate and with urgency to meet the needs of our practices and our patients.”

According to the American Dental Association Health Policy Institute Economic Outlook and Emerging Issues in Dentistry Survey, 39.8% of dentist respondents were recruiting dental hygienists and 42% were recruiting dental assistants. Among those looking to hire dental hygienists, 74.1% found recruiting the position to be “extremely challenging,” and for those looking to hire dental assistants 57.9% found it to be “extremely challenging.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, March 2022 had a record high 11.5 million job openings in the U.S. March also saw a record high 4.5 million people quitting their jobs.

“Workforce issues aren’t just affecting dentistry, they’re affecting industries and professions across the state. In my opinion dentistry has always had a delicate balance between the number entering and leaving the field every year,” Lamielle said. “The pandemic has completely thrown off that balance and it is going to take time to correct. We’re hoping through our efforts we can accelerate that rebalancing and help create safeguards to limit the amount of disruption that could arise from potential future events like a global pandemic.”

One of the working group’s recommendations will be to amend the Ohio Dental Practice Act to allow another pathway for dental assistants to obtain a coronal polishing certificate.

Other avenues that the working group is exploring include strategies to increase interest in entering into careers in dentistry, specifically dental assisting and dental hygiene; dental staff education and training issues such as expanding training and degree programs; and educating dentists on expanding the utilization of existing staff.

“I think addressing workforce issues is extremely challenging. While I’d love to tell everyone that this issue will go away soon, in reality it is likely going to take years to address and improve the challenges we are facing,” Lamielle said. “I’ve been volunteering with organized dentistry for almost 20 years. I’ve never been more invested in an issue than I am with the current challenges we are facing regarding workforce issues. Every member of the working group and everyone at the ODA is working diligently to try and improve the issues we currently face.”

In addition to the working group’s efforts, the ODA signed onto two letters to the Commission on Dental Accreditation. The first letter requests the removal of both the faculty to student ratio for clinical settings and the requirement that faculty members who teach and supervise in clinical settings must possess a baccalaureate or higher degree from the Accreditation Standards for Dental Hygiene Education Programs. The second requests the removal of both the faculty to student ratio for clinical settings and the requirement that the program administrator must possess a baccalaureate degree or higher from the Accreditation Standards for Dental Assisting Education Programs. By removing faculty to student ratio and baccalaureate requirements from the standard, dental hygiene and dental assisting programs could set their own faculty to student ratios and qualifications for program administrators that make sense for each specific program.

The letters state that removing these requirements will bring program requirements in line with dental education, allow programs to increase capacity while possibly decreasing per capita operational expenses, and open clinical instruction opportunities to a broader, more diverse group of instructors.

The ODA also recently supported an amendment to the Ohio Dental Practice Act creating a third pathway to becoming a certified dental assistant in Ohio by allowing dental assistants to secure certification through American Medical Technologists. Up until recently, the only avenues for a dental assistant to get certified in Ohio were through the Dental Assisting National Board or the Commission on Ohio Dental Assistant Certification.

“I don’t know a single dentist that hasn’t been negatively impacted by staffing issues over the past two years,” Lamielle said. “As always with the ODA being able to speak about and promote action with the weight of its name and membership it is so much more effective than each of us as individuals trying to enact change. We appreciate all of your ideas, support and patience as we navigate these challenges.”