Successful practices depend on their dental hygienists. Now, US News & World Report is recognizing the vital role that they play as well as the benefits of a career in the field by naming dental hygiene first on its list of the Best Health Care Support Jobs and seventeenth on its list of the 100 Best Jobs in America for 2018. And while many professionals agree with this recognition, such kudos come with caveats too.
According to the survey, there are more than 200,000 dental hygienists working in dental offices nationwide. These numbers will grow by nearly 20% with 40,900 new jobs by 2026, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports, anticipating growth that will outpace most other professions. US News & World Report attributes this outlook to increased awareness of the links between oral health and systemic health among consumers.
In 2016, dental hygienists saw a median salary of $72,910, based on BLS figures. The best paid 10% earned $100,170, and the lowest paid 10% made $50,870. The highest paid dental hygienists can be found in Fairbanks, Alaska, with $105,730. San Francisco and San Rafael in California, Reno in Nevada, and Anchorage in Alaska rounded out the top five metropolitan areas, with each seeing a six-figure average for dental hygienists.
US News & World Report cited below average upward mobility for dental hygienists and an average stress level. However, the survey did find high flexibility and good work-life balance. The BLS reports that half of all hygienists working in 2016 had part-time schedules. Plus, 37 states allow dental hygienists to work outside of dental offices and in alternative locations such as hospitals, county health clinics, and physicians’ offices.
“It is an excellent career for many women because of the unique flexibility and portability of the profession,” said Tonya Lanthier, RDH, founder and CEO of DentalPost. “More dentists will be offering part-time employment to hygienists, both to accommodate the longer hours most practices are adopting, and because the younger generation wants more flexibility.”
Beyond salary and benefits, many dental hygienists find their work personally fulfilling. Good oral health can have a significant impact on a patient’s overall quality of life, and many dental hygienists take great pride in that. More importantly, whether or not patients have good oral health is often an indicator of whether or not they have good systemic health, too. And dental hygienists often are on the front lines of making those initial diagnoses.
“Dentistry plays a significant role in reducing the impact of chronic disease in patients who have made loyal commitments to dental practices and have trusted dental professionals to guide them in making healthcare decisions. Dental teams are poised to deliver the wellness and health message. The dental team sees patients far more frequently in any given year than physicians,” said Traci Warner, RDH, an oral medicine coach and facilitator.
Multiple recent studies have connected chronic oral pathogens with systemic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers also have found links between periodontitis and lung cancer, colon cancer, breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, stomach cancer, and esophageal cancer. Plus, dental hygienists are perfectly positioned to screen patients for oral cancer, which sees 49,750 new cases each year.
“In the future, I see more dental teams testing, identifying, and treating specific high-risk pathogens when patients are seen for routine preventive care appointments. I see more dental practices committing to this standard of care,” said Warner. “The control of periodontal pathogens will lower systemic inflammatory markers, which can lower the incidence of cardiovascular events and lower blood glucose levels.”
“Another trend is a holistic approach toward dental hygiene treatment, including the use of diode lasers,” said Magdalena Groza, RDH. “As people learn more about the toxic effects of environment, food, and lifestyle, they are becoming more open to holistic dental treatment. People are more aware of the oral-systemic connection and value a simplified yet technologically advanced method of treating periodontal disease.”
The Pros and Cons
But there are downsides to dental hygiene, as there are in any profession. Some hygienists may feel they are mistreated by their bosses and that they work in offices that resemble assembly lines, where generated income is a top priority, not patient care. Also, some patients see the hygienist as someone who just performs the cleaning and don’t appreciate the skills that the profession demands. Dental anxiety may manifest in unfortunate ways, too.
Ergonomics are another concern. Older dental equipment often was designed with the dentist in mind, typically taller and male, not the hygienist, typically shorter and female. Even when the setup is a good fit, long hours of twisting and bending over patients, manipulating handpieces and other gear, holding items in stationary positions, and just being on your feet can take an exhausting and painful toll on the body, especially the neck and back.
Depending on the practice, other negatives may include a lack of medical insurance, registered retirement savings plan, pensions, paid sick days, or vacation time. And, dental hygienists are constantly exposed to blood, pathogens, and the aerosols they create during treatment, leaving them at high risk for infection. For many dental hygienists, though, these tradeoffs are still worthwhile in a career that enables them to directly care for those in need.
“The job satisfaction that comes from knowing you were a part of saving someone’s life is rewarding and transformational. Dentistry is no longer just about saving teeth. It’s about saving lives,” said Warner. “As a dental hygienist, this brings reward and satisfaction to me every day. To watch the transformation in the lives of people when you sincerely care about another’s well-being and total health is so powerful.”
“Dental hygiene is an extremely rewarding profession,” said Lanthier. “It feeds the soul because you use your skills to help others. People trust you with their health, and that is very satisfying.”