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Closure of Oregon dental laboratory program leaves only 13 U.S.-based training programs

August 28, 2018

By David Burger

Portland, Ore. — In 1992, there were 56 CODA-accredited dental laboratory technology programs in the U.S., according to Bennett Napier, chief staff executive of the National Association of Dental Laboratories.

Five years ago, there were 19.

Now there are only 13.

The Oregon Association of Dental Laboratories, with support from the National Association of Dental Laboratories, has asked Portland Community College to reconsider its decision to close the dental laboratory technology program at its Sylvania campus.

"The ADA Council on Dental Practice is very invested in issues relating to all dental personnel, including dental lab technicians," said Dr. Craig Ratner, chair of the council. "The education and training of all dental health care workers is a major concern for the council, as is access to qualified personnel in all job positions. The closure of this program in Oregon is especially newsworthy and dentists need to be aware that there are significantly fewer programs to train dental lab technicians and this can impact both our patients and our practices."

On July 27, Katy Ho, Ph.D., vice president of academic affairs at Portland Community College, announced the closure in a letter to the dental laboratory technology advisory committee.  According to the letter, the decision was based on the budget constraints of the college; high cost of the program per student; the ability of the college to maintain and invest in high-cost equipment and facilities; and "historically low" enrollment and completion.

The Oregon Association of Dental Laboratories objected to the conclusion. "The continuation of the dental laboratory program is not an easy decision, but we strongly believe it is the right one for its students, the doctors, the patients and the community," said the Oregon Association of Dental Laboratories' board in an Aug. 7 letter to Mark Mitsui, Ph.D., college president. "It is ever so critical for Portland Community College, as the largest in-state public college, to be the vanguard of the maintaining and nurturing the future dental technologist for our community. Access to dental care is extremely important to Oregon's citizens. Dental laboratories generally provide dentists with support on over 65 percent of an average dental practice's prescriptions for restorative and cosmetic oral health care."   

The letter continued: "We believe that the career path for Portland Community College's dental laboratory program graduates is bright to become leaders in the industry. According to the Department of Labor, year-end 2017 figures indicate 3 percent growth in demand for dental technicians and average wages have gone up over 11 percent since 2014."

Dr. Ho said the college will continue to teach the curriculum for the next two years to help students who are currently enrolled or who have signed up to start in the fall.

Portland Community College's dental laboratory technology program is the only one of its kind in Oregon.

Homayoun Louie, one of the program instructors at Portland Community College, said the fall of 2018 enrollment is full, with 18 students accepted, with some students coming from out of state. He estimated that 90 percent of graduated students become employed either by Oregon Association of Dental Laboratories-member labs or other labs in the area.

Mr. Napier said he was frustrated with the "snowball" of dental laboratory closures, and worried that "we haven't seen the worst yet," predicting that the nation could soon be down to 10.

But with wages trending upward, Mr. Napier hopes that demand for qualified laboratory technicians will precipitate the opening of new programs across the U.S. "Some of the schools are growing and turning students away," he said. "Some schools have had to double faculty to meet the demand."

The Council on Dental Practice has had an official representative on the National Association of Dental Laboratories' National Board for Certification in Dental Laboratory Technology for many years and the council was initially created to respond to concerns in the dental laboratory arena. Dental laboratory technology programs are accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation.

For more information on the National Association of Dental Laboratories, visit NADL.org.