US News and World Report recently named dental hygiene the number one healthcare support profession in the nation and the twenty-fourth best profession 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 US News & World Report’s ranking and the state of the profession with Dentistry Today.
Q: What makes dental hygiene so vital to oral healthcare?
A: As research continues to emerge on the links between oral and systemic diseases, the role of the hygienist as a prevention specialist becomes even more critical. If we prevent or treat periodontal disease at its earliest stage, the patient will not only enjoy a healthier mouth, but also overall better health outcomes.
Q: US News & World Report noted dental hygiene’s $74,820 median salary among its positive attributes. Do you agree with this assessment?
A: The earning potential for hygienists is solid, particularly given that the typical entry-level clinician has a two-year degree. The salary for dental hygienists is very competitive with other occupations requiring a four-year degree.
Compensation at a dental service organization (DSO) is often more compelling. Aspen Dental, for example, offers hygienists a competitive base hourly salary, with the opportunity to share in the profits of their practice, and a clear career trajectory.
Q: US News & World Reportalso expects 10.8% employment growth with 23,700 new jobs anticipated in the next decade. What’s driving this growth?
A: I think graduates are attracted to the dental industry because of its “steady nature” for employment opportunities, continuous growth, changing practice models, and advancing technologies. It’s also personally rewarding to help patients get back on the road to good oral health or prevent oral disease that can impact their overall health.
Q: What are some of the intangible benefits of a career in dental hygiene?
A: A career in dental hygiene can offer benefits such as flexible scheduling, geographic mobility, and paid time off.
And while I’m admittedly a little bit biased, there are real benefits to practicing hygiene in a DSO-supported environment like Aspen Dental. For one, you are part of 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.
These leadership positions allow hygienists to have an impact beyond their individual office, working in partnership with practice owners to develop and coach hygienists to build a strong hygiene practice within their offices. Hygienists at Aspen Dental have also taken on roles in recruitment, academic relations, orthodontic support, and operations.
A career in hygiene allows clinicians to work as part of a healthcare team and collaborate with other providers, helping patients transform their smiles and overall health, which is really rewarding, personally and professionally.
Q: What are some of the biggest challenges that hygienists face?
A: Delivering dental hygiene services is physically demanding and challenging, with repetitive motion and postures needed to deliver patient care. Time management is particularly difficult as hygienists try to balance delivering comprehensive care using new technologies with the demands of efficient schedules needed to offset low insurance reimbursements.
And of course, patient education can be a challenge. A patient who thinks they only need a “standard cleaning” often doesn’t understand that they might be in the early stages of periodontal disease and require scaling and root planing to effectively treat their condition. Dental hygienists strive daily to help patients understand the value of early intervention and modifying home care habits to manage their periodontal and other oral diseases.
Q: In addition to clinical techniques, what other skills are vital to a successful career in dental hygiene?
A: In addition to mastering clinical skills, hygienists must also be passionate educators, effective time managers, technologically savvy, and lifelong learners. Multiple studies have shown that upwards of 42% of the population does not have regular dental visits. These individuals often don’t understand or value oral health, and the hygienist must be patient, empathetic, and influential to motivate clients to seek the care they need.
When patients make the decision to move forward with treatment, it is important to provide services as soon as possible to rid them of pain and infection and help them prioritize their oral health rather than falling into old patterns. Understanding that patients want and need to be treated urgently requires hygienists to manage their time and schedules effectively to create access to care. The art and science of dentistry evolves rapidly, and hygienists must be technologically savvy and lifelong learners to keep up with these advances.
Q: How is technology having an impact on dental hygiene?
A: Technology has significantly changed the way that dental hygiene care is delivered. Whether it be artificial intelligence and screening devices to help clinicians detect oral disease at earlier stages, lasers or tools designed for biofilm management, clear aligner therapy, or 3-D imaging to assist with treatment planning and education, all of these advances help dental professionals achieve better oral health outcomes for patients.
Q: How can dental hygiene improve access to care for underserved populations?
A: Dental hygienists, particularly those with expanded function training and certifications, are uniquely positioned to impact the access-to-care crisis. Hygienists are prevention specialists and can thwart dental disease through home care education and preventive services like fluoride varnish.
States that have wisely chosen to utilize hygienists in collaborative models through teledentistry, midlevel providers, and similar roles are increasing access to care and keeping patients out of emergency rooms by allowing hygienists to provide some restorative services and interventions like silver diamine fluoride treatment.
Q: Do you have any other comments about the current state of the profession?
A: The profession continues to evolve with the adoption of expanded duties, midlevel providers, teledentistry, and collaborative practice models. This allows hygienists to practice more autonomously to provide access to care to a larger percentage of the population. It is an exciting time to be in the dental hygiene profession.
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.