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5 surprising things you may not know about dental hygienists

On average you could earn about $51,000 annually.

5 surprising things you may not know about dental hygienists

To keep our pearly whites white, we know to floss, brush and see a dental hygienist regularly. But did you know this century-old profession remains one of America’s hot jobs?

Hiring of dental hygienists is projected to increase by 33% through 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.

In addition to a traditional model of 9-to-5 in private practice, the current scope of dental hygiene extends far beyond four walls, says Jill Rethman, RDH, BA, of Prescott, Arizona. The 2015–16 president of the American Dental Hygienists’ Association (ADHA), Rethman is also an author, editor, speaker and visiting clinical instructor and adjunct professor, proof that dental hygienists can do and be much more than their title implies.

To become a dental hygienist, you’ll choose from 335 accredited dental hygiene programs for a formal education. You’ll then obtain a state license after passing a written exam, and a state or regional clinical exam.

A high number of dental hygienists work part time, according to the BLS. Those working full time earn a median salary of about $51,000, according to PayScale.

Clearly enthused about the upward movement of the profession, Rethman and two dental hygienists who are members of the ADHA offer insight about the industry.

1. You treat more than teeth

Dental hygienists do perform preventive and therapeutic services, but oral health is inextricably tied to whole-body health, Rethman says. “We’re poised to play a key role in all aspects of health care, especially as the concept of the ‘interdisciplinary team’ continues to expand.”

“Certain populations are more prone to disease, including oral diseases,” she says. For example, recent research shows that people with diabetes are more susceptible to periodontal diseases and also confirms that periodontal conditions are associated with adverse pregnancy outcomes.

2. You can save a life

That tie to systemic conditions can’t be underestimated, says Rethman. Too many people still enter emergency rooms for dental care and the association estimates that more than 46 million people live in “dental health professional shortage areas.”

There are cases in which an untreated toothache has even led to death.

Jessica Suedbeck, a dental hygienist at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, says she enjoys having positive impacts on patients’ lives

“Dental hygiene opens so many doors and helps your patients and those in the community have better smiles and improve overall health,” she says. “I am an advocate for myself, my patients, and my profession. This career allows me to have a family, be involved in the community, and to pursue all my passions—professional and personal.”

3. You work with like minds

“Dental hygiene chose me,” says Matt Crespin, MPH, RDH, and associate director of the Children’s Health Alliance of Wisconsin. An ADHA District VII Trustee, Crespin oversees oral health and early literacy programs, along with providing operational support for 26 staff members. “I found a niche that wasn’t traditional clinical hygiene and have been able to continually expand and grow.”

He enjoys working at the systems level of health policy and collaborating with others to advocate for changes to improve oral health of the most vulnerable populations. 

4. You work in new settings

Besides a private office, you’ll work as a clinician in a variety of locations, including community clinics, hospitals, prison facilities, nursing homes and schools. You’ll find jobs with corporations, in public health, as a researcher, educator, administrator or entrepreneur.

5. You assume greater responsibilities

Citing a projected shortage of dentists, both Rethman and Crespin support easing state laws to allow dental hygienists to have direct access—the ability to initiate treatment based on their assessment of a patient’s needs without the specific authorization of a dentist, treat the patient without the presence of a dentist, and maintain a provider-patient relationship, according to adha.org. Currently, only 37 states allow this.

“Due to regulatory restrictions in Wisconsin, as a dental hygienist, I can provide my full scope of preventive services in schools and Head Start locations,” Crespin says. Head Start is a program of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that offers various services to low-income families. “I cannot do those same exact things in daycare facilities, nursing homes or long-term care facilities.  

“We need all dental team providers to practice at the top of their licenses.”

Minnesota and Maine, for example, have developed new workforce models that use dental hygienists to provide expanded services if they obtain additional education. 

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