Dental hygiene: The state and future of the profession

As with any career, people enter dental hygiene for various reasons. Some are drawn to the hands-on work. Others see dental hygiene as a satisfying career with many options for growth. Most dental hygienists are drawn to an RDH career because it allows them to make a difference in people’s lives. For those considering entering dental hygiene and for those who are experienced RDHs, it makes sense to look into dental hygienist job opportunities. They may also be interested in what’s to come for dental hygiene. Overall, the dental hygienist job outlook is good.  

Salary and job opportunities

Sources in the know say that the RDH job outlook is good, but what are the realities of the career? Salary is always a consideration when considering a new career or a change in direction. Job options are also important to keep in mind.

Median salary

O-net Online, a project of the US Department of Labor/Employment and Training Administration, reports the current median wages of dental hygienists in the US at $35.05 per hour, or $72,910 annually. Salary varies by state. For example, RDHs in Alaska are typically paid more than the US median rate and RDHs in Mississippi tend to receive less than the US median rate.

Clinical jobs

Most dental hygienists work in clinical settings, either for private-practice dentists, community clinics, mobile clinics or government institutions. Jobs may be full-time, part-time or temporary positions., a resource sponsored by the US Department of Labor, calls the outlook for dental hygienist careers “bright” and says that “new job opportunities are likely in the future.” The site also notes that about half of all dental hygienists work part time and that “Since dentists often hire hygienists for a few days per week,some hygienists work for more than one dentist to reach full-time hours in the field.”

Landing a permanent, full-time dental hygienist job is a goal for many dental hygienists. Such jobs are out there, but they may be difficult to find in some places, especially in areas with a high number of RDHs per capita. Some hygienists piece together part-time or temporary jobs as a step toward full-time, permanent employment. Others prefer to work only part time or to put together a schedule of traveling among multiple practices. Some traveling RDHs even choose to work in several different cities, states or even countries.

Permanent and non-permanent positions are both great options for dental hygienists, and they both have their merits. Either way, dentistry is growing, and that means dental hygiene will grow along with it.

Career paths

So, what’s the single best career path for a registered dental hygienist? Good news: There’s not one. There are plenty of ways to have a satisfying career in dental hygiene. Of course, every RDH starts with an accredited dental hygiene program, often as part of an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. Once a candidate achieves licensure, he or she is free to accept employment as an RDH.

RDHs typically spend time gaining experience and expertise in the field before looking at different options for career growth. Many RDHs choose to continue working for dental practices, and becoming an expanded-function RDH is an option for them. Others change settings or open hygiene clinics of their own. Those who wish to venture out into non-clinical settings also have a variety of careers to choose from.

Varying degrees of responsibility and freedom

In most states, dental hygienists are required to work under the direct supervision of a doctor of dental surgery. However, some states allow hygienists greater degrees of freedom. In Colorado, for example, an RDH may own a dental hygiene practice. Connecticut allows dental hygienists with two years of experience to work in certain settings without a dentist present. Dental hygienist requirements vary from state to state. The Academy of General Dentistry has a comprehensive list, Dental Hygienist Duties by State.

Nonclinical options

RDH jobs come in many forms. Some dental hygienist job opportunities go beyond the clinic. These skilled experts are also needed as instructors, consultants, dental writers and dental marketers. Many people who follow this path also stay in clinical practice.

Some RDHs do it all

A prime example of an RDH branching out within dentistry is the story of Emily Boge, who has taken on many roles. She’s featured in episode 67 of Michelle Strange and Andrew Johnston’s podcast, A Tale of Two Hygienists. Boge is an experienced RDH, the inventor of the Boge 513 scaler, an oral health advisor for Colgate, a dental writer, a consultant and a public speaker. She’s also the Dental Administrative Chair at Hawkeye Community College. It sounds like a lot, but Boge proves that the career of an RDH can take many different turns.

A look at the future

The National Center for Health Workforce Analysis report, National and State-Level Projections of Dentists and Dental Hygienists in the U.S., 2012–2025, predicts that the demand for dental hygienists will continue to grow, but that demand will not keep up with supply. In 2012, there were 153,600 full-time equivalents (FTEs) in the US. That’s projected to increase by 28 percent. Demand is expected to increase by only 10 percent. The authors point out, however, that some states will have a shortage of dental hygienists by 2025.

O-net Online reports that there are currently 201,000 dental hygienists in the US and that there will be 7,030 job openings each year between 2014 and 2024.

This means that there will be jobs, but hygienists may have to be flexible in the places and the ways they look for work to fill their schedules.

A great way to adapt

Everything about the economy and the job market is changing, and dental hygiene careers are no exception. Dental hygienist job opportunities are out there and will continue to be available. As a dental hygienist, you can maximize your career potential by adapting with the job market.

While many dental hygienists seek to piece together schedules through RDH temp agencies, such agencies are outdated, limiting your income and the control you have over your job. Job seekers are now turning to a more modern approach to find RDH jobs.

Cloud Dentistry is a cloud-based job-matching platform that offers free profiles to dental professionals. RDHs, dental assistants, and dentists can use the platform to find jobs at the locations and times they want to work, and they can set their own hourly rates.

The outlook is bright as dentistry moves into the future. For those who are willing to change with the times, careers in dental hygiene will continue to be rewarding.

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