Dental Hygienists Have an Optimistic Future

Matt Crespin, MPH, RDH

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Many of the factual points Dr. Michael Davis made in his August 19 article, “Dental Hygienists Face Temp Employment Difficulties,” are well taken. But I believe that the outlook for the dental hygiene profession, viewed holistically from the national perspective, is not as dire as depicted. In addition, respectfully, some of the language used to describe the challenges to dental hygienists is quite strong in the absence of citations.

As a point of fact, it has never been true that dental hygiene education was available only through a four-year program. To date, the entry level degree for licensure as a dental hygienist is an associate degree. Two dental hygiene educational programs offer a certificate as the terminal degree, and one of those is located in an institution that also offers a baccalaureate. Sixty percent of dental hygienists currently hold an associate of science as their highest degree. 

Since the inception of the profession in the early 20th century, the trend has been toward more education, not less. Today, in addition to the certificate, associate, and baccalaureate degrees, there are master’s degree programs in dental hygiene as well as degree-completion programs that transition enrollees from AS to BS and BS to MS. Some dental hygienists hold doctorates in related fields including education, and the American Dental Hygienists’ Association (ADHA) is fostering an effort to create doctoral degrees in dental hygiene.

Regarding private institutions and their proliferation, ADHA policy supports the requirement to demonstrate the need to open a new dental hygiene education program. ADHA worked successfully with CODA to effectuate that requirement.

Dental support organizations (DSOs) also offer opportunities for dental hygienists that may not exist in a traditional dental hygiene position in a private practice dental office. They allow for career growth beyond clinical practice for those who want to pursue a role in administration, for example. According to the Oral Health Workforce Research Center at the SUNY Albany School of Public Health, DSOs are attractive to dental hygienists who desire employee benefits such as health insurance and retirement plans.

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employment of dental hygienists is expected to grow 20% from 2016 to 2026, much faster than the average for all occupations. The demand for dental services will increase as the population ages and as research continues to link oral health to overall health.”

ADHA research indicates that 40% of dental hygienists are practicing part time and under temporary arrangements. Our 2016 survey found that 84% percent of dental hygienists are working as many hours as they would like in dental hygiene. In the 42 states where dental hygienists are permitted direct access to the patient, ADHA advocates for their recognition as reimbursable primary care providers.

Mr. Crespin is the president of the ADHA. A member since 2002, he has served the organization in a range of positions, most recently as president-elect and previously as vice president. He holds a BS in health sciences/dental hygiene from Marquette University. Also, he received his Community Dental Health Certificate from Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in 2009 and his MPH from AT Still University in 2010. Currently, he is associate director of Children’s Health Alliance of Wisconsin.

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