P.E.I. dental offices facing staffing issues, appointment backlogs

An Island-wide staffing shortage in dental clinics is causing a backlog of appointments, and it’s forcing some patients on P.E.I. to wait months before receiving care.

“As with any part of health care, everybody’s looking for somebody to help them out,” said Dr. Brian Barrett, executive director of the Dental Association of P.E.I.

He said key positions such as dental assistants and hygienists are “vital” for offices to be able to perform their full range of functions.

But a lack of staff is leaving some dentists to do the work alone which in turn impacts patients whose appointments get cancelled or rescheduled.

Pandemic aftermath

Barrett said part of the problem has been the pandemic since many dental assistants and hygienists have changed their hours to part-time, leaving clinics in a situation where more shifts are needed to fill the week.

He said another pandemic-related factor has been dealing with the fallout of appointments that were missed when dentists had to close their practices.

Dr. Brian Barrett, executive director of the Dental Association of P.E.I., said key positions like dental assistants or hygienists are “vital” for offices to carry its full range of functions — from prepping the clinic to helping with dental procedures. (Michel Euler/The Associated Press)

“When things get backed up, it’s just really hard to get caught up again,” said Barrett.

“There’s nowhere to put people that have cancelled or didn’t show up except, oh, seven or eight weeks … maybe a couple of months.”

Jessica Vancolen, secretary of the P.E.I. Dental Hygienists Association and a registered dental hygienist, said this eventually results in a pileup of appointments — a mixture of patients who were bumped to a later date and patients who had been booked for that time.

With the added challenge of workers leaving the practice or moving to another office, she said routine appointments that would normally be scheduled every six months are now booking up to 10 months in advance.

Recruitment and retention

There are no institutions on P.E.I. that offer dental hygienist training for people who want to work in the field, and Vancolen said it’s a barrier to hiring and retaining staff.

“You have to either go the closest place [which] would be Moncton or Halifax, so a lot of people — they’ll go to those places and then maybe decide, ‘Oh, I like it here’ and they’ll stay,” she said.

Vancolen said more incentives, like paying off student loans for people come back to the Island, could help entice those folks to potentially become staff and assist with the workload.

Jessica Vancolen, secretary of the association and a registered dental hygienist, says a part of the problem is the lack of opportunity on P.E.I. to train staff and keep them on the Island after graduating. (Sebastien Bozon/AFP/Getty Images)

The Canadian Dental Association says labour shortages are not isolated to P.E.I., but are a country-wide problem that’s been challenging both before and after the pandemic.

In a statement to CBC News, the association said, “Combined, existing workforce challenges, modifications to patient management, and more patients returning to their dental home for care are causing dental appointments to be scheduled or rescheduled farther out.”

It said other factors impacting appointment backlogs, including early retirements, can vary by province.

The CDA said it has renewed its collaboration with the Canadian Dental Assistants’ Association to develop a project called Building the Professional Dental Assisting Workforce of the Future, aimed at assisting dental office staff with wellness resources and action plans to address labour mobility and integration of immigrants into the workforce.

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