PORTLAND – Devin Ward gripped the small, high-speed drill hesitantly, aware of the damage she might do as a complete novice in the field of dentistry.

Soon, the teenager from Greenville was drilling and filling lifelike teeth with confidence, as part of a first-time Dental Careers Exploration Camp held Saturday through Monday at University of New England.

Twenty high schoolers from across Maine participated in the immersion program, which is designed to recruit young people to choose dental careers and increase access to dental health care across the state.

The students worked on simulated human heads and bodies and were instructed by faculty from UNE’s dental hygiene program, which includes a public dental clinic. Several local dentists and dental hygienists also provided instruction as volunteers.

“I was a little skeptical when one of the dentists handed me a drill,” said Ward, who will be a senior this fall at the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone. “Usually this kind of thing is reserved for college students. I have a lot more respect for my dentist now.”

The immersion program resulted from a partnership between UNE and Gear Up, a division of the Maine Department of Education that promotes higher education for students in rural and economically disadvantaged communities. The immersion program was made possible by $75,000 in contributions from various sources, including TD Bank, The Betterment Fund and Bangor Savings Bank.

Dental care is the most prevalent unmet health care need in Maine, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. Poor oral health can lead to a variety of more serious health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, stroke and risks for pregnant women.

All 16 counties in Maine have shortages of dental professionals, including dentists, dental hygienists, dental assistants and dental lab technicians. As a result, more than 200,000 Mainers don’t have regular access to dental care in their communities.

The shortage of dentists is expected to hit Maine hard within the next five years, according to the American Dental Education Association. Forty-one percent of dentists in the state are age 55 years or older, and the number of dentists who will retire soon is expected to exceed the number of people who will graduate from dental school.

That’s why UNE plans to open the state’s first dental college in 2012, and why the university hosted the immersion program, according to Kneka Smith, associate dean for planning for the dental college.

The immersion program, which will be offered annually, targeted top students who are leaders in their communities and who have an interest in a dental career. The students stayed in dormitories on the Stevens Avenue campus.

Over three days, the students learned to drill and fill cavities, pull teeth and suture gums, diagnose X-rays, administer medications and monitor a patient’s pulse, blood pressure and respiration. For some exercises, the students worked on simulated human bodies that flinch or moan if they “feel” pain.

“We want the students to recognize that it’s not just about (fixing) a tooth,” Smith said. “It’s about the whole patient, and that patient has a variety of health care needs.”

The overall goal, however, is to entice young people to consider a career working in people’s mouths, which can be hard to imagine without hands-on experience.

After three days in the immersion program, Marcques Houston is thinking about becoming a periodontist, a dental specialty that focuses on the treatment of gum disease.

“I’m going to be a freshman this fall, so I’m looking into a few careers in the medical field,” said Houston, who will attend Monmouth Academy. “I like science, and periodontics sounded interesting.”

Devin Ward has investigated three careers as a student at the Maine School of Science and Math. She completed an engineering internship with a Greenville firm and she worked in an emergency room in Oklahoma City, where family members live.

“Dentistry is definitely on my list of careers to consider,” Ward said. “Being able to do this now, before I’m stuck in a major, is great. And I would definitely be willing to come back to Maine if dentists are needed here.”

 

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: [email protected]