The dental assistant shortage has been happening for years now, according to Lynn Tomkins, president of the Canadian Dental Association (CDA), and with the federal government’s new dental care plan for Canadians, she worries that without proper staffing, many dentists may not be able to meet the patient demand.
“The shortage of dental assisting is the number one issue for dentists across the country,” she said. “So dentists have had to alter their hours, in some cases reduce their hours because they don’t have the support staff, just like operating rooms and hospitals. They don’t have the nurses, you can’t do the treatment.”
Even before COVID-19 hit the health-care system, there was a shortage of dental assistants in Canada, she said.
The CDA states that in 2019, up to a third of Canadian dental offices were looking to add a dental assistant to their staff.
“COVID-19 exacerbated this problem,” Tomkins said, noting that the pandemic pushed the Canadian health-care system to the brink, causing front-line staff workers, including dental assistants, to leave the profession.
“People have perhaps gone into other areas to work remotely and dentistry cannot be done remotely,” she said.
Tomkins estimates that there is a current “shortage of almost 5,000 dental assistants” in Canada.
A 2022 survey conducted by the Canadian Dental Assistants Association (CDAA) and shared with Global News highlighted this problem amid the pandemic.
The survey found that during the height of the pandemic, around 57 per cent of dental assistants said their work environment became increasingly stressful and difficult and around 21 per cent felt the expectations of their employer became unreasonable.
The survey also showed that during the height of the pandemic, around 42 per cent of the respondents said they felt unfairly compensated given the higher level of risk they experienced at work.
Lack of benefits, pay
One of the main drivers behind the shortage of Canada’s dental assistants is a lack of proper compensation and benefits, said Kelly Mansfield, a board member of the CDAA.
Mansfield, who worked as a certified dental assistant for more than 30 years, said the shortage isn’t because dental assistants are not graduating, it’s that many are choosing to leave the profession.
“It’s very hard to raise a family on a dental assistant salary. I was a certified Level 2 assistant for over 10 years and worked in private practice and I left because I just couldn’t live on the salary of a dental assistant,” she said.
“So I did take my oral health education and I went into a different profession.”
There are other professions a dental assistant can go into, rather than working at a dentist’s office, she said, such as working in dental insurance, sales or public health.
“There are many jobs that you can use the dental assisting profession, that will offer you better benefits and better compensation,” Mansfield said.
'Dentists cannot work without dental assistants'
Whether it’s patient care, assisting with a dental procedure, sterilizing equipment or taking X-rays, Tompkins said the role of a dental assistant is crucial.
“We do rely on them a great deal,” she said. “In many cases, they’re like a surgical scrub nurse, working right beside the dentist, mixing materials, handing instruments, keeping the material dry. So it is actually quite a challenging job.”
Without proper staffing, Mansfield and Tomkins believe dental offices may not be able to run at full capacity.
The risk is that many Canadians won’t be able to receive oral health care, as “dentists cannot work without dental assistants,” Mansfield warned.
“Although the biggest risk would be that dentists are hiring untrained individuals that are being hired to fill the role. This is a significant concern to dental assistants and a significant concern to the general public,” she said.
And now that the federal government plans to roll out its Canadian Dental Care Plan, Tomkins said there is even more of a need for dental assistants.
In its March budget, the federal Liberals announced plans to expand its dental plan to provide coverage for an estimated nine million uninsured Canadians with an annual family income of less than $90,000, with no co-pays for those with family incomes under $70,000, by the end of 2023.
With an expected increase in demand for dental appointments because of federally funded dental coverage, Tomkins said the CDA wants to ensure the staffing capacity is there.
Earlier this year, the CDA published a policy paper asking the government to develop an oral health staffing strategy in preparation for the increased dental service for nine million more Canadians.
“There will be a gradual rollout of this national dental care program. And it will give us some opportunity to increase our capacity. But we do need to recruit more dental assistants. We need to find ways to make them stay in the field,” Tomkins said.
She said other ways to recruit and keep dental assistants in the office are to provide more mental health support services and give the option of distance learning in order to reach people in remote communities.
“We also need to make dental assisting aware to new Canadians, because it’s a relatively short educational path, six months to nine months to a very good job that’s very much in demand.”