The technology learning curve for both dentists and technicians is ramping up to a never-before-seen level, putting tremendous pressure on laboratory owners to educate themselves, their staff members and their dentist-clients about our changing industry; it's a one-two-three punch!
There are other issues-- some long-standing, some relatively new--contributing to the immense training pressure on owners and managers. The U.S. military, which was once a key training ground for many technicians, is offering significantly fewer opportunities for dental technology education. For instance, in 2005 the Navy eliminated its dental technology-specific training and merged it with hospital corpsman training. The Navy's goal was to enhance the flexibility of its enlisted medical personnel and, as a result, sailors learn a wide variety of medical skills but receive less extensive training in dental technology.
The number of ADA-accredited, two-year programs has dropped precipitously in the past 30 years. We now have 20 programs--down from more than 70 in the 1980s--meaning our schools are graduating just a little over 200 students per year. Dental technology programs are expensive to operate and sometimes don't have the full support of school administrations. In addition, while some laboratory owners embrace two-year program graduates, others don't, preferring on-the-job training for new hires. (Click here to ready about two programs that are bucking the trend and succeeding thanks to the dedication of their staff members.)
At the same time, dental schools have dramatically cut back on the amount of dental technology training their students receive. This means some graduates have never performed laboratory procedures or learned about all the latest technologies and material options. Consequently, these new dentists are turning to laboratories for their expertise and experience with new materials and techniques.
Adding to lab owners' frustration is the Department of Labor's reclassification of dental technicians from skilled to unskilled labor last fall. The downgrade was the result of an overhaul of the Bureau's 50-year-old reference guide for labor statistics that identifies the education and training needed to be hired and become competent in a given field. Under the old system, technicians were classified as skilled laborers, in a category of workers who possessed two to four years of advanced education to succeed in their jobs. Now, technicians are classified as unskilled laborers who only require a high school education. (Encouragingly, the NADL has been working with the Department of Labor in an effort to reverse the classification, hopefully as soon as 2013.)
A Paradigm Shift
On a positive note, the recognition of the value of joint dentist-technician learning continues to expand within the dental community. While dental associations like the Northeast Gnathological Society and American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry have long embraced technician members, groups such as the Greater New York Academy of Prosthodontics and the American College of Prosthodontists have more recently jumped on the bandwagon by instituting membership categories for technicians, providing them with the same educational opportunities as their dentist-members. Post-graduate facilities for dentists like the Pankey Institute, LVI Global (Las Vegas Institute) and the Scottsdale Center are also encouraging technician attendance at their clinical courses and offering joint courses for the dental team. Last fall, the ADA's House of Delegates passed resolutions to improve dentist-technician working relationships and ensure the quality of prosthetic services.
Some of the resolutions are specific to education, including:
- Dental societies will be asked to recognize the continuing education needs of certified dental technicians and invite them to meetings and seminars, both as attendees and presenters.
- When a technology school is nearby, dental schools will be asked to offer joint courses for dental and laboratory students on topics such as morphology/occlusion, prosthetic design and fabrication, waxing, casting, surveying of study casts and CAD/CAM.
- In order to ensure technicians can offer adequate technical support to dentist-clients, the ADA will encourage technicians to become certified and pursue continuing education.
These resolutions come five years after The Lab Summit--a grassroots group of concerned technicians, dentists, educators, association representatives and manufacturers--began meeting annually to discuss challenges facing the dental laboratory and dental professions. Originally organized by Drs. Gordon Christensen and William Yancey and now led by Executive Director Burney Croll, DDS, the Lab Summit participants were instrumental in getting national dental organizations involved and compelling the ADA to pass resolutions.
Responding to the Pressure
Given the state of formal education and military training, it's no surprise that on-the-job training continues to be the number one way technicians learn dental technology. But for many technicians, formal education is synonymous with professionalism; they see it as a means to elevate their status and the laboratory community as a whole and many industry players have responded to this thirst for advanced education.
Product manufacturers and suppliers have been instrumental in filling the educational void by spearheading numerous continuing education opportunities at their own facilities, at laboratories and at trade shows such as LMT LAB DAY. To help technicians sort through all their CE options, the NADL's Foundation for Dental Laboratory Technology recently launched an online search function on its website, www.dentallabfoundation.org. Technicians can search the more than 1,000 NBC-approved courses by various criteria including specialty, course date, location, sponsor and keyword. Established in 2008, the Foundation is dedicated to raising awareness of the necessity of education for technicians and other members of the dental team; it has raised more than $240,000 for scholarships and other educational initiatives.
While advanced educational programs such as ASMDT (American Society of Master Dental Technologists) and the UCLA School of Dentistry's Master Dental Ceramist Program are well established, there are some new options available. For instance, Jason Kim, CDT, Oral Design, Clinical Assistant Professor, New York University College of Dentistry just announced a nine-month course on Mastering Aesthetics & Ceramics for the Advanced Dental Technician: Hands-On Continuum. The course meets one weekend per month from September 2011 through June 2012.
At Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, Dr. Hiroshi Hirayama is launching a Master's Degree program, Advanced Dental Technology and Research. Focused on advanced ceramics, implantology, attachments and milling techniques, the program gives technicians the opportunity to attend lectures and work chairside with Tufts Postgraduate Prosthodontics Residents and gain an understanding of comprehensive treatment planning and the value of a teamwork approach to dentistry. The program can be taken as a two-year, full-time curriculum or part-time over a longer period; a Bachelor's degree or equivalent level of education and/or training is required for admission. (For additional information on Tufts' program, log onto The BRIDGE at LMTmag.com.)
To tackle the third punch--the pressure to educate their dentists-clients--laboratory owners are taking things into their own hands. Building educational centers (see Glidewell Laboratories: 'Crossing the Traditional Boundaries of Dental Technology for more details), hiring dentists on staff and taking clinical courses are just a few of the ways they're becoming a vital educational resource. In the next two issues, LMT will offer an in-depth look at these strategies and how laboratory owners are making the most of the synergistic approach to dentistry.
Educational Resources: Want More Details?
The following is the contact information for the associations and educational facilities mentioned in this article: