Erie's only endodontist spends up to nine hours a day either performing root canals or consulting with patients who need the dental procedure.
Pat DeMarco usually doesn't take a lunch break, and he and his staff carve out a few hours on Friday afternoons to complete needed computer work or to schedule emergency patients.
Still, nonemergency patients may wait up to two months for an appointment.
"It's not what we would like," said DeMarco as he stood near his front office desk. "Thankfully, the general dentists in the area are very talented and do a great job at triaging these patients. But we need more endodontists."
Erie's lack of endodontists worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic when two of them retired, leaving DeMarco as the only one still treating patients.
Though some local general dentists perform root canals, others do not and the most complex cases often are referred to an endodontist.
"In those cases, we give the patient Dr. DeMarco's office number," said Aaron Merski, an Erie dentist and past president of the Erie County Dental Association. "But when he's booked up, patients have had to go to Ashtabula, Ohio, or down to New Castle."
Endodontists aren't the only specialty dentists in short supply, Merski said. Both Erie and Crawford counties are designated by the federal government as dental health professional shortage areas for low-income residents.
Difficult to recruit new speciality dentists to come to Erie
Erie has just a few periodontists — who treat gum diseases — and oral surgeons — who perform extractions, implants, gum grafts and jaw surgeries. Even the number of general dentists in the Erie area has declined in recent years, despite the opening of the LECOM School of Dental Medicine in 2012.
The problem isn't a lack of dental students in Erie, it's keeping them here after graduation, said Susan Calderbank, a dentist and director of patient care at LECOM's dental clinic.
"Though the school is here in Erie, many of the students are from other states and they head home after graduation," Calderbank said. "Young dentists also seem to be attracted to urban practices. There's a practice in the North Hills section of Pittsburgh that has eight to 10 endodontists."
Merski added that it is difficult for the mostly private dental practices in Erie to convince young dentists to move to northwestern Pennsylvania.
"Dentistry is still privatized, for the most part, and it's tough to recruit dentists to Erie unless they have a connection to the area," Merski said. "We simply don't see young dentists come here from other places to work. There are very few dentists under 40 in Erie."
DeMarco, 56, has been trying for years to recruit more endodontists to his practice. He has enough room at his southwest Erie office for three additional endodontists, but would be thrilled to hire just one.
"I advertise (on the dental trade websites) but we don't get much of a response," DeMarco said. "I thought we had someone a few years ago, she really was a good candidate. But I believe she chose an office near Cleveland."
Besides working through the lunch hour, DeMarco has also made other concessions to see more patients who need root canals. He now rarely performs dental surgeries that endodontists are trained to do. Instead, he refers those patients to oral surgeons.
"I used to work with students at the LECOM dental school," DeMarco said. "Then the pandemic hit and now things are just too busy here."
DeMarco said he doesn't want anyone to feel sorry for him. He loves his job and doesn't plan on retiring any time soon.
But he is concerned about what happens if more endodontists, periodontists, oral surgeons and other dental professionals don't open practices in Erie.
"Still, I think things are going to get better," DeMarco said with a smile. "I'm an optimist."
What is a root canal?
A root canal is a dental treatment where inflamed or infected pulp inside a tooth is removed, then the tooth is filled and sealed.
This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: Erie endodontists: Pat Demarco is the only local root canal dentist