Despite the challenges of the past year, now is a good time to get into dental hygiene. US News & World Report has named dental hygienist the fifth Best Health Care Support Job and thirty-second in its 100 Best Jobs list overall.
“We are able to earn a good living, be financially sound, and, above all, have the ability to maintain balance in our lives,” said Jo-Anne Jones, president of RDH Connection.
“The dental hygiene profession can be an extremely rewarding career in healthcare,” said Donna Wells, RDH, manager of professional practice with the Canadian Dental Hygienists Association.
US News & World Report began by compiling a list of jobs with the largest projected number and percentage of openings between 2019 and 2029 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 $76,220 and an average salary of $37.13 per hour in 2019, which is an improvement over 2018’s $74,820 median and $36.30 per hour average. The best-paid 25% of hygienists made $91,560, and the lowest-paid quarter made $64,260.
California is the place to be if you’re a dental hygienist, too, as it is home to the top five cities, in terms of salaries. Dental hygienists in Santa Maria make $140,150, followed by San Jose at $120,420, San Francisco at $113,940, Santa Rosa at $113,390, and Vallejo at $112,700.
But statewide, California only has the second best salaries with a mean of $106,240. Alaska took the top spot at $114,790. The District of Columbia was third at $102,380, Washington was $93,200, and Oregon was $87,270.
The BLS also projects 6% employment growth for dental hygienists between 2019 and 2029, which is faster than the overall average, with an estimated 13,300 jobs opening up on top of the current 200,000 in employment. The BLS expects demand for dental services to increase as the population ages and as research continues to link oral health to overall health.
“Research has moved into a much deeper understanding of the oral-systemic link. We now know that the most prevalent and deadly diseases are linked through a common pathway, and that is chronic inflammation,” said Jones.
“Periodontal disease, which impacts an estimated 42% of US adults age 30 years or over, with close to 8% of those adults having severe periodontitis, according to leading authorities, is the most chronic inflammatory disease known to mankind. We have a job to do!” said Jones, who also noted the importance that dental hygienists play in oral cancer screenings.
“With thorough and effective extraoral/intraoral cancer screening and assessment, we have the ability to discover oral mucosal abnormalities hopefully within early stage development,” Jones said. “Opportunities with enhanced technology have elevated our ability to be able to screen much more effectively.”
Dental hygiene has pros and cons when it comes to job satisfaction. US News & World Report rated the career average for upward mobility, including opportunities for advancements and salary, and average for stress level, including the work environment and the complexities of the job’s responsibilities. But there are some particular challenges.
“Dental hygiene is physically and emotionally draining. Physically, we are prone to repetitive stress injuries since we work in a small confined space, the mouth, bend our back and head a lot, and use the same motions while instrumenting day in and day out,” said Wells.
“Emotionally, dental hygienists are expected to be welcoming, warm, calm, happy, and positive with every client. We want to ensure that every client feels comfortable during their appointment. At the end of the day, a dental hygienist can feel emotionally and physically spent,” Wells said.
And though those days can feel long, they also can go by quickly as hygienists work to keep up with the steady flow of patients. Time can feel rather short.
“Time constraints—essentially not having enough time to fully educate and empower our dental patients to understand the value of their dental hygiene appointment. Providing a dental hygienist who is a strong educator with more time is not lost time or unproductive. It is quite the contrary,” Jones said.
“With the knowledge we possess about the oral-systemic connection, we must recognize that if we do not reduce the inflammatory burden, we are setting our patient up for systemic inflammatory disease. This is a challenge. We need to treat the host response, essentially utilize a medical holistic approach versus a mechanical approach,” Jones said.
US News & World Report also said that dental hygiene careers boast high flexibility.
“Outside of traditional dental practice, dental hygienists are involved in research, public health, and post-secondary education. Dental hygienists who own their own businesses provide oral healthcare to marginalized communities such as seniors, those with mobility issues, and/or without dental insurance, First Nations, and remote communities,” said Wells.
“We have the ability to work independently in some geographical areas providing the opportunity to be a business owner, should we wish to take on that responsibility. We are able to offer services to those who may otherwise be unable to access care,” Jones said.
“In the evolution of our profession, we have carved out new pathways of diverse opportunities within the corporate sector, sales, public health, insurance, et cetera, increasing opportunities to augment traditional clinical practice,” Jones said.
And as for work-life balance?
“Our work does not go home with us. There is closure at the end of a clinical day,” Jones said.
Challenges remain for dental hygienists.
“We have educational requirements each year. However, like every healthcare professional, there is an ethical requirement to keep ourselves current and offer the best possible evidence-based care that is available. This comes with the territory and the responsibility we have towards the public,” said Jones.
“It is extremely important that dental hygienists take care of their body to have a long, rewarding career,” Wells said. “Among other challenges that dental hygienists face in Canada is the lack of group benefits and pension plans offered at their places of work.”
The pandemic has presented a host of other concerns as well.
“It has been a very tumultuous time for our profession. We were identified as being the top profession at risk for transmission of COVID-19. This was then further exacerbated by the shortage of PPE. Couple this with differences expressed by regulatory bodies, and it became a hotbed of controversy,” said Jones.
“Given that dental hygienists work 18 inches away from a client’s open mouth, and COVID-19 is a virus transmitted via the respiratory system, just going to work is now a stressor for many,” said Wells.
“Although the dental profession has always had very high standards for infection prevention and control protocols, these have been increased further to keep dental hygienists, staff, and clients safe during this time,” Wells continued.
“This includes gowns, N95 masks that are worn for extended periods of time, scrub caps, and face shields. Appointment lengths have been increased to account for the donning and doffing of PPE and fallow time to allow aerosols produced during treatment time to settle,” said Wells.
“Fortunately, the profession as a whole has seen a very low transmission rate due to a strong and ongoing commitment to infection control,” Jones said. “This has been comforting.”
Jones and Wells are optimistic about the future of the profession for a variety of reasons.
“Advances in technology have and will continue to make a strong impact on the quality of care we may offer. Today’s periodontal therapy program is light years ahead of where it was when I first graduated. The understanding of the oral-systemic link affords many opportunities for the dental hygienist to positively improve quality of life for patients,” Jones said.
“The future of the dental hygiene profession is bright. There is recognition of the essential role we play in healthcare and the risks we take when providing dental hygiene treatment to our clients,” Wells said.
“Some dental hygienists are being asked to provide the vaccine along with their counterparts in other healthcare professions. More and more dental hygienists are looking to open their own independent practices to provide services to those that may not have access to oral healthcare otherwise, and an increasing number are providing orofacial myofunctional therapy,” Wells said.
“I would be remiss to not say that the past several months have taken their toll. We have seen a number of resignations within our profession. It is no doubt a time of uncertainty. My hope is that every dental hygienist will not sacrifice their health or safety or that of their patients due to being placed in a compromised position,” Jones said.
“We need to work together within our dental teams, engage in positive reinforcement of one another, and recognize that next to our family, these are the most important and impactful relationships we have,” Jones said.
“I’m confident we will see a return to normal. Our patients will all return to our practices. Focus on the future and be grateful for what we do have rather than mourning what we presently don’t have,” Jones said.
And that connection with patients seems to drive the profession’s greatest benefits of all.
“In a traditional dental practice, dental hygienists are the backbone of the practice. They see the clients most often, establish strong relationships with them, and ensure clients follow dental treatment plans,” said Wells, who called the knowledge that you make a difference in people’s lives, including their oral and overall health, the biggest reward of all.
“Because dental hygienists see their clients two to four times per year, they develop strong relationships with them and their families, so they celebrate life’s successes, such as graduations, a new job, marriage, or a new baby, and support them in their saddest moments,” Wells said.
“The ability to impact the quality of life of each and every one of our patients who we are in contact with is very gratifying,” said Jones.