She graduated from dental school in 1975 and opened a private practice in Traverse City, becoming the first female Native American dentist in the United States. She is also the only Native American dentist in Michigan.
Rickert spearheaded a partnership between Northwestern Michigan College and Bay Mills Community College that will see tribal college students transfer to NMC’s dental assistant program after completing their freshman year.
The articulation agreement signed in February with Bay Mills, based in Brimley on the Upper Peninsula, aims to address an urgent need for dental assistants in northern Michigan and, in particular, the Native Americans.
“It’s a good opportunity for both colleges, for young people and for most of the patients in the UP who have to wait to get an appointment,” Rickert said.
Bay Mills students can complete their general education there before transferring to NMC, where they can complete the dental assistant program.
“There is a tremendous need for all dental positions, but especially for dental assistants,” said Beckie Wooters, director of NMC’s dental assistant program. “I get calls every week asking if we have students available.”
The program lasts for two semesters, followed by a 12-week internship at a community dental office or clinic. Graduates must also pass a state exam before becoming a registered dental assistant or RDA. As of 2019, NMC has a minimum pass rate of 96 percent.
Wooters said most students have job offers before they even begin their remote internship.
The need is even greater in the UP, which is why the partnership is so important, Wooters said. She plans to visit Bay Mills in April to recruit students.
Rickert grew up in Wyoming, Michigan, where she excelled in math and science as a young student. By the time she was in high school, she knew she wanted to work in healthcare, but she had yet to narrow it down.
Now retired, Rickert does consulting work for Michigan insurer Delta Dental and leads Anishinaabe Dental Outreach, which aims to improve dental health in Indigenous communities. She said she was very surprised that the UP did not have a dental assistance program.
“With a registered dental assistant, a dentist can see about 60 percent more patients,” Rickert said. “They can perform more clinical procedures under the supervision of the dentist.”
Bay Mills has about 600 students, about 62 percent of whom are Native American. Of the more than 315,000 dental assistants nationwide, less than 1 percent are Native American or Alaska Native.
As part of her consulting work, Rickert identifies Native Americans who have health insurance and do not use it.
“A big problem that kept coming up was the inability to get timely dental care,” she said, while people who needed treatment had to wait up to nine months.
There is also a mistrust among Native Americans of health care provided by non-Natives, including dentistry, she said, adding that not long ago dental care was not even available to them.
Dental care is not a high priority in Indigenous families, she said, and education is needed because of a lack of awareness of how poor dental health affects physical health, Rickert said. Native Americans also have a higher rate of diabetes, she said.
“Their overall health is not as robust as the general population,” Rickert said.
Bay Mills is more than a three-hour drive from NMC, and students will be placed in the dorms if needed, or they can stay with relatives, Wooters said. All classes and labs take place Tuesday through Thursday, allowing students to go home for the rest of the week.
The NMC program is the furthest north of six accredited dental assistant programs in the state. The college recently invested $52,000 in new equipment for the program. It has six patient rooms and some of the latest technology, including an intraoral scanner.
The agreement with Bay Mills is also seen as a way to boost enrollment in the program, which currently has 13 students, although there is room for 24 students.
Dental assistants in northern Michigan are paid about $17 to $20 an hour, Wooters said. Some students have used the program as a stepping stone to other dental careers, she said.
Rickert said she has had a fantastic career that has allowed her to travel and really opened up the world to her. Dentistry can be practiced anywhere, she said. She would like to convey that message to the students of Bay Mills.
“When you’re 16 or 17, you don’t know that,” she said.