Since the great recession, job security has been elusive. One bright spot is the health care field. Lane Community College in Eugene offers training programs to help students land well-paying jobs in the health care industry, including dental care. Lane recently opened a new dental clinic on Willamette Street where students can learn by treating patients.
Jenny Tegner crouches over a reclined dental chair, poking at a set of teeth with metal tools. The pearly white dentures aren’t attached to a body, it’s a mouth mannequin. She’s wearing scrubs, eye protection, a face mask and gloves. She’s preparing to retake a difficult state exam on restorative dentistry.
Tegner: “So last time I took it I missed by two points and so I’m just taking it again, mostly because the doctor that I work for is interested in me using it. I just think that it’s the next up and coming thing that you’ll start to see a lot of hygienists with that certification, so I want to make sure that I have it.”
Tegner graduated from Lane in 2011. Being a dental hygienist, she says, will allows her to work part-time, make good money and spend time with her child.
Looking over Tegner’s work is Sharon Hagan, the coordinator for the dental hygiene program. She says the rigorous degree program requires a series of tough exams. Students have to find just the right patient to demonstrate their abilities on.
Hagan: “The student has to take the patient with them. We travel to Salem, Portland and to the state of Washington for these exams.”
Dental students pay a thousand dollars to take an exam, an expensive mistake if they have to redo it.
Consequently, the clinic relies on a steady stream of patients. But so far this has been a bit of a challenge in the new location. Instructor Leslie Clark says the clinic on Willamette Street provides good visibility to commuters but it doesn’t have a built in supply of students like they had at the campus location.
Clark: “It’s good and bad because it does have good access on both of the buses and the driving. The disadvantage is if we have openings, we can’t go out to the bus stop and say, ‘Hey we have an opening to get your teeth cleaned.’ So, it’s just a different way of doing business.”
The dental clinic is a busy, but quiet place. Although there are seven dentists on staff, there isn’t the constant grind of drills you might expect. Much of the work involves preventive care such as cleanings and sealants, x-rays, and fluoride treatment.
Berman: “I’m Sheryl Berman, Dean of Health Professions at Lane Community College. When we look at last year, approximately 98% of our students are employed, which is pretty amazing when you look at employment in Lane County.”
Berman says the high job placement rate isn’t accidental. It’s partly a result of admitting fewer than sixty students a year.
Berman: “We don’t take in more students than we see on the horizon as far as jobs. We could take in and educate 100, 150 students, but what would that help if we flood the marketplace?”
The starting pay for dental assistants ranges from $14 to $17 dollars an hour and goes up into the 20s. It’s higher for dental hygienists who can start out making about $35 an hour.
Second year student Jackie Cartwright holds a chart while taking notes as her instructor examines a patient’s teeth and calls out the information.
Clark: “28 mesial, distal. 29 mesial, distal. 30 mesial, distal. 31 mesial, distal.”
Cartwright was admitted to the dental program with no prior experience. She was searching for a fulfilling career in the health care field.
Cartwright: “And I just started careers. Dental was the way to go. It has regular hours and you’re still helping people and kind of focusing on the preventative side of things.”
Cartwright graduates in June and will be part of the first class trained at the new clinic.
It’s a typical day at the LCC Dental Clinic, with first and second year students working with patients under the watchful eye of instructors.
Justin Kriger is like many patients who arrive with no insurance and no regular dentist. Instructor Sharon Hagan says he’s been coming here for low-cost treatment.
Hagan: “He had some fillings that he needed to get done, which our staff dentist did for him. You’ve had all your fillings completed?
Hagan: “Great. That’s good. So he’s going to be getting full service from us in terms of having first and second year students working with him and our staff dentist and then getting his teeth cleaned.”
The clinic is in the process of getting established with the state’s Medicaid program or Oregon Health Plan. Soon those patients will be streaming in the door. And by getting the care they need, they’ll be helping train the next batch of dental assistants and hygienists to serve Lane County.
The Lane Community College Dental Clinic is hosting an open house on Wednesday from 5 to 8 p.m. The new clinic is located at 2460 Willamette Street in Eugene. For more information, call (541) 463-5206.