Q&A: Dental Hygiene as a Top Job with Maureen Howes of Aspen Dental

Dentistry Today


US News & World Report has named dental hygiene the fifth best healthcare support job and the thirty-second best job overall, citing its salary, job market, and work-life balance among its benefits.

As the vice president of hygiene support, East Coast, at Aspen Dental, Maureen Howes, RDH, MS, is responsible for the training and development of 1,100 clinical hygienists and for mentoring 40 hygiene directors and managers. She recently shared her thoughts about the US News & World Report results and the state of the profession with Dentistry Today.

Q: Overall, do you agree that dental hygiene is among the top professions?

A: From my personal experience, yes. Dental hygiene is a great career, and it continues to evolve. Dental hygienists are essential to keeping patients healthy. A heightened focus and emphasis on hygiene has become increasingly important as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dental hygienists play a crucial role in the maintenance and betterment of their patients’ oral health and at a time when staying healthy is more important than ever. Receiving preventative oral care from dental hygienists can help ensure healthy teeth and gums, which leads to better overall health.

An unhealthy mouth may increase one’s risk of serious health problems such as heart attack, stroke, poorly controlled diabetes, sleep disorders, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, and preterm labor. Routine oral care can be a window to detect early signs and symptoms of these systemic conditions.

In fact, the Academy of General Dentistry reports that more than 90% of all systemic diseases produce oral signs and symptoms. Dental hygienists have the privilege of helping patients get the oral and medical care they need.

In a DSO like Aspen Dental, there are real benefits to practicing hygiene such as a network of more than a thousand hygienists that you can turn to for advice, support, and expertise. We also offer a career path beyond the traditional chairside clinical role, like becoming a territory manager or division director of hygiene.

Q: What are some of the biggest rewards in dental hygiene?

A: Hygienists work alongside dentists to provide their patients with happy, healthy smiles—a reward in itself! Hygienists teach patients how to maintain good oral health, including educating them on proper brushing and flossing techniques. It’s rewarding to be a part of a patient’s smile transformation through treatment of their gum disease, whitening, or orthodontic therapy.

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges?

A: The increase in the safety precautions that need to be taken during dental services comes with several new challenges. In a normal patient visit, hygienists provide routine services such as taking vitals, discussing medical history and concerns since the last visit, taking x-rays, assessing for periodontal disease and oral cancer, cleaning the patient’s teeth, and providing home care education. When safety protocols are added to this list, it quickly becomes a lot to do in such a short amount of time, leading to increased stress on the job.

Additionally, patient anxiety is a challenge that has been exacerbated by the pandemic, and a challenge that dental hygienists must address. As the primary client-facing employee during a dental visit, they are tasked with not only ensuring that they perform their job well, but that the patient feels safe and comfortable during the service.

Q: How else has the pandemic impacted the profession?

A: Possibly no profession was impacted greater than dentistry at the onset of the pandemic. Due to the airborne nature of the virus, there were many concerns about reopening dental offices safely, for patients and staff.

From the onset of the pandemic, Aspen Dental quickly implemented protocols that ensure both patient and employee safety while delivering high-quality care, such as:

  • Cleaning our environment with products from the EPA’s list of registered surface disinfectant products for use against coronavirus. 
  • Wiping doors, handles, and other common area touchpoints for added cleanliness every two hours. 
  • Ensuring office teams have the personal protective equipment recommended by the CDC. 
  • Eliminating sign-in sheets. Patients check in at the desk and can wait in their car before receiving a text when it’s time for their appointment. 
  • Limiting chairs and seating in waiting rooms. 
  • Removing unnecessary objects or items like magazines and books from waiting rooms and treatment areas. 

For us, having these protocols in plan has created peace of mind for patients and staff. In fact, with many patients now behind on yearly checkups, there is pent-up demand in the industry for more dental hygienists to enter the field.

In addition to safety concerns, the pandemic has significantly impacted the number of hygienists available to deliver care. Given that a large majority of the profession is made up of women between the ages of 25 and 50, issues around home schooling and work-life balance have caused many hygienists to put their careers on hold.

Q: How do you feel about the profession’s future?

A: Dental hygiene will continue to grow in importance as the public has gained an increased awareness of the value of their oral and overall health during this pandemic crisis. Dental hygienists will play a vital role in the future of dentistry with the implementation of teledentistry, artificial intelligence, and other technology advances that will transform the healthcare and oral health industry for both practitioners and consumers.

Ms. Howes is vice president of hygiene support, East Coast, at Aspen Dental. She graduated from Old Dominion University with a BS and MS in dental hygiene. She has been with Aspen Dental since 2006. Previously, she was an adjunct faculty member at Onondaga Community College, where she taught multiple clinical and didactic courses. She is also a CDCA examiner and has provided CE courses for over 20 years.

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