Dental Hygiene Named the Number One Healthcare Support Profession

Richard Gawel
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Now seems to be a good time to launch a career in oral health. In addition to dentistry being named the second best profession, US News & World Report has named dental hygiene the number one healthcare support profession and the twenty-fourth best profession overall. 

US News & World Report began by compiling a list of jobs with the largest projected number and percentage of openings between 2018 and 2028 according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). It then ranked these jobs based on median salary, employment rate, growth, job prospects, stress level, and flexibility.

By the Numbers

Dental hygienists enjoyed a median salary of $74,820 in 2018 and an average of $36.30 per hour, which is a slight improvement over 2017’s $74,070 median. The best-paid 25% of hygienists made $89,619, while the lowest-paid 25% made $62,490. 

“For the amount of time and dollars spent in dental hygiene education, the return in annual salary is exponential,” said Laura J. Sleeper, RDH, DHSc, director of the Plaza College Dental Hygiene Program in Queens, New York. 

Dental hygienists in Fairbanks, Alaska, have the highest salary at $113,190, followed by San Jose, California, at $112,210; Anchorage, Alaska, at $110,800; San Francisco at $109,750; and Santa Rosa, California, at $108,010. 

By state, dental hygienists in Alaska had the highest mean salary at $114,320, with California at $100,830, Washington at $90,690, Arizona at $85,890, and New Jersey at $85,860 rounding out the top five. 

“It takes a special kind of person to see many different patients every day and deliver quality care with compassion. The salary reflects the amount of work asked of the clinical dental hygienist,” said Sleeper. 

Job Prospects

Plus, the BLS projects 11% employment growth for dental hygienists between 2018 and 2028, with approximately 23,700 jobs opening up. And there are plenty of reasons why the profession is booming.

“This growth can be attributed to several factors, including second career seekers, retirement, and those with bachelor’s degrees who simply cannot find work in their chosen field. There are also dental assistants who have practiced for years but want more, and dental hygiene is the most logical next step,” Sleeper said.

“Several years ago, the unemployment rate was significantly higher and increasingly more challenging for a dental hygienist to find full-time employment. This led to creative diversity in dental hygiene employment,” said Jo-Anne Jones, registered dental hygienist, speaker, and president of RDH Connection.  

“Dental hygienists began to seek out and create positions in the corporate world, insurance sector, public health, research and education, sales, independent practice, and employment in long-term care facilities,” said Jones. 

“With the demographic of baby boomers reshaping the American population, the need for dental hygienists in long-term care facilities is ever increasing. This is also impacted by the success of preventive care and the retention of the natural dentition into our later years. The need for regular ongoing preventive care and maintenance will continue to grow,” Jones said.

Quality of Life

Dental hygiene has pros and cons when it comes to job satisfaction. US News & World Report rated the career below average when it comes to upward mobility, with average stress levels and above average flexibility with regards to working schedules and work-life balance.

The profession can be very physically demanding, too. US News & World Reportnotes how dental hygienists can go home with sore hands, wrists, and shoulders after a day of hunching over patients and using a variety of tools. These professionals, US News & World Reportcautions, need to stay in good physical shape to prevent injury and enjoy a long career.

“Repetitive strain injuries due to compromised ergonomics is a challenge to our profession. It is vitally important early on in the career of dental hygiene to invest in the sustainability of our bodies,” said Jones. “Magnification and the use of loupes enable the dental hygienist to attain optimal ergonomic conditions in clinical practice, not to mention the ability to vastly improve visual acuity.”

Plus, many dental hygienists feel that the career is emotionally rewarding, as it gives them an opportunity to provide care to people who need it the most.

“Ask the dental hygienist who found an oral cancer lesion early or noticed that her patient wasn’t healing after initial nonsurgical therapy, and, with her dentist, referred to a medical doctor for blood testing and discovered that the patient had diabetes or leukemia, and intervention occurred,” said Sleeper.

“The dental hygienist can change lives, and patients become family. There is no price tag that can be associated with the effect that the dental hygienist can have on a patient’s life on a daily basis,” Sleeper said.

There are plenty of other intangible benefits in dental hygiene as well. In addition to its impact on other human beings, Jones cited the profession’s high levels of job security due to its many diverse opportunities, its predictability and stability in day to day employment, its value to the oral healthcare team, its flexibility and work-life balance, and how it is respected by society. 

Oral and Systemic Health

Another key driver behind dental hygiene’s value in oral healthcare is its role in overall healthcare, as the medical community and the general public alike are acknowledging more how oral health can have an impact on their systemic health.

“The public’s understanding of the link with oral health to overall health has prompted many to look beyond the feel-good aspect of dental cleanings and recognize the importance to their overall health. An appointment with the dental hygienist is less frequently viewed as a feel-good elective procedure,” said Jones.

“Many diseases first present in the oral cavity. Many people see their dentist twice yearly, where they could go years between seeing a physician, and this frequency is beneficial to the disease discovery process,” said Sleeper. “Dental hygienists perform a battery of screenings with each and every patient beginning with what seems simple, a blood pressure screening—the silent killer.” 

“We now understand more than ever that today’s prominent and deadly diseases are linked by a common pathway, and that is chronic inflammation. Whether we are talking about diabetes, cardiovascular disease, dementia, Alzheimer’s, or certain cancers, chronic inflammation plays a significant and prominent role. We also understand that periodontal disease is the most common chronic inflammatory disease known to mankind,” said Jones. 

“Dental hygienists are trained to do a comprehensive oral assessment enabling the recognition of some of the earliest warning signs of periodontal disease and to treat it successfully in its early and moderate stages. Dental hygienists are also trained to perform oral cancer screenings, again with an objective to recognize the earliest warning signs and symptoms,” Jones said.

Systemic risks seem to keep growing as well, with oropharyngeal cancers related to the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus growing by 225%, Jones said, as well as the unfolding risks presented by vaping and electronic cigarettes. Dental hygienists can have an impact in educating their patients about the dangers presented by these behaviors.

“The dental hygienist can spend much more time with the patient than the dentist, or most healthcare practitioners, for that matter,” Sleeper said. “This time is spent educating and facilitating the patient as a co-therapist in their overall care.”

“Dental hygienists are recognized prevention specialists playing an integral role in assisting with helping to reduce healthcare costs and the risk of further disease progress. We are educators closing the knowledge gaps and helping Americans achieve optimal health across the lifespan,” said Jones.

The Challenges 

Despite the rewards, dental hygiene isn’t easy.

“Dealing with the public can be taxing at the best of times. Anxious patients will exhibit a number of other personality traits that can be particularly demanding and mentally exhausting. It would be foolish to think that we would never run into unpleasant personalities,” said Jones.

“However, the great experiences far outweigh the negative. It is important to always bear in mind that our job is to elevate and educate each patient to achieve oral health. They have to learn to live with their attitude! We certainly cannot afford to take everything personally,” Jones said.

Those financial rewards can’t be taken for granted either. Licensing is a key issue too.

“The hygienist must learn to advocate for herself or himself concerning salary and benefits, and this is usually understood after years of trial and error,” said Sleeper.

“Lack of congruency in state-to-state regulations will oftentimes pose challenges to the scope of practice in which a dental hygienist may engage in. Each state has its own governing and regulatory laws determining the services, setting, and supervision under which dental hygienists may practice,” said Jones.

“While the dental hygienist has made great strides in scope of practice within the past 10 to 20 years, there is much more that could and should be granted, such as midlevel provider status and independent practice,” said Sleeper.

Through it all, Sleeper and Jones remain optimistic about dental hygiene’s outlook.

“I’ve practiced hygiene for 28 years. I went from a young person who was happy to have a job that paid well to a professional who has affected and truly has been affected by the vast amount of patient care interaction,” said Sleeper.

“Economics and political changes will impact the profession and healthcare in general. With greater emphasis on the interaction between oral and overall health, the profession of dental hygiene may see greater collaboration between medical and dental practices with diverse employment opportunities arising. Dental hygienists may also see greater autonomy in assuming primary responsibility for oral health in underserved populations,” said Jones.

“I have been witness to a significant progression of our profession, but we can do more and we must further our education to be taken seriously and consistently and move the profession forward,” said Sleeper.

“We are at the precipice of greatness, and the excitement is palpable, but there is much work to be done. I know that the profession is up to it, and I’m so proud of our progress,” Sleeper said. 

“It’s a great profession, and one that is accompanied by much gratification and reward,” said Jones.

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