ELLSWORTH — Friday, June 10 capped off a busy week for the team at the Caring Hands of Maine Dental Clinic.
With options for dental care in rural parts of the state dwindling, most days are busy for the director, Dr. Timothy Oh, and his staff. But with 13 “externs” on site, students nearing the end of their time at various dental schools around the country and looking to get some real-world experience, this is the busiest week of the year. In a good way.
“Having this extra workforce, especially in a time when it’s hard to get licensed dentists to move to rural Maine, allows us to help more people,” Oh explained as future dentists bustled in and out of examination rooms behind him.
The Caring Hands clinic is a nonprofit started by Oh back in 2010 with the goal of improving the oral and dental health of the community. The clinic sees patients who are primarily on MaineCare or Medicare and focuses mainly on children. On top of the number of patients it provides care for, Oh sees the clinic’s role as a teaching facility as a huge part of its mission.
“The higher calling is to recruit some of these dental students to come back to the rural parts of the country,” Oh explained. “The past two years have been the worst I’ve ever seen in terms of a shortage of care, so we’re hoping some of these folks decide to stay.”
The clinic has at least three externs on hand throughout the year for periods of about 4-12 weeks. It has had over 300 externs, students generally in the fourth year of their doctoral programs, come through the facility so far. Currently, the clinic has externs from the Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, the College of Dental Medicine at the University of New England and the Arizona School of Dentistry and Oral Health.
Their ranks were bolstered this week by 10 students from the UConn School of Dental Medicine. Students, under the supervision of Oh and other faculty members, are able to perform a wide range of dental procedures for patients such as cleanings, extractions, fillings, exams, even root canals.
The group also took their act on the road earlier in the week, setting up a clinic at a roller rink in Houlton. Oh and the clinic have been accumulating gear over the years and have traveled to 36 sites, including five different islands, to provide dental care in the community.
That’s one of the aspects of dentistry that most appeals to Nicole Colon Cruz, a student at the UConn Dental School helping out at the clinic this week.
“I’ve always known I wanted to help people and dentistry was the most fitting option for me,” said Colon Cruz, who one day plans to go back and help out as a dentist in her native Puerto Rico.
And while these students have provided a benefit to the community, they are also receiving valuable training that they can’t get in the classroom.
“It has honestly been a great learning experience for me,” said Colon Cruz. “It’s good to get out of school and into the community.”
And Oh, who says he receives 20-40 calls a day from people looking for dental care, hopes that some of these students enjoy working in the community so much that they come back and set up shop.