Autum Whitworth needed fillings to stop tooth decay. Dental assistant Jill Metlow needed a patient to practice on.
A program at Spokane Community College that teaches working dental assistants the finer points of tooth restoration brought them together.
Metlow, who has worked as an assistant for Chewelah dentist Dr. Bud Evans for years, stands to advance in her career through the program while helping her office offset a growing caseload.
“I’m just happy for the chance to do this,” Metlow said.
The program – the first of its kind in the state – is the sort of continuing education initiative that keeps community colleges vital. And in this case, it could help blunt the effects of a looming shortage of dentists.
Donna Phinney, director of SCC’s dental assistant program, said the cost of dentistry is rising quickly because of new technologies and materials. Higher costs could prevent more people from receiving basic care.
By having more dental workers, including hygienists and now assistants, able to fill teeth with composites and metals, perform exams and take X-rays, dentists can spend more time on preventing tooth decay and gum disease.
Healthy teeth and oral hygiene have become high medical and economic priorities, said Spokane dentist Dr. Scott Davis, who is offering his expertise to the SCC program. Researchers have found links between infected teeth and gums and health problems such as heart disease.
The new program – initiated after the Legislature gave the OK to expand the services that can be provided by assistants – targets working assistants.
Charmaine Maxwell has assisted Davis for 15 years.
For about $5,000 each and six months of classes, she and about 20 other assistants will bring new skills to the office.
As part of the training, SCC holds subsidized dental appointments at the dental clinic on campus.
Last week about 30 patients arrived for dental appointments. Some were students. Others were people who needed dental work and likely can’t afford it.
Maxwell called it a bonus of the program.
“To be able to help out folks from the community is a good part of this,” she said.
Newly graduated dental assistants can expect to earn between $12 and $15 an hour with their two-year degrees. After years of work and then completion of SCC’s new Expanded Functions Dental Auxiliary program, the pay for assistants can jump to more than $30 an hour, Phinney said.
That’s decent money in a city where dental job security is virtually assured.
Spokane has a record of poor oral health; dentists and medical officials point to the community’s refusal to add fluoride to its drinking water. Most of the country’s major metropolitan centers fluoridate their municipal water supplies.
Dentists say the failure to fluoridate amounts to health discrimination against the children of poor families.
Those opposed to water fluoridation call it a matter of free choice. Some say the problems with tooth decay stem from diet and poor oral hygiene.
Regardless, the community’s oral health problem, especially among its children, has spurred investments and efforts among dentists, government and colleges.
“It’s hard for some patients to get treatments,” Phinney said, “so hopefully our new program can make it a little easier.”