One thing is certain: Dentistry is a growth field. And even in a solo practice, dentists don’t work alone: Dental hygienists provide many of the critical services (like cleanings, x-rays, and periodontal maintenance) that patients need for optimal dental health. In fact, most patients spend far more time with their hygienists than they do the dentist when they come in for their cleanings.
All this means that the job outlook for dental hygienists is good. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS), the overall employment outlook for dental hygienists is going to increase 6% from 2019 to 2029. That makes it one of the faster-growing careers in the U.S.
There will certainly be job opportunities for dental hygienists; the question is, is this the right career path for you? While we can’t answer that question for you, personally, we can note that the field is growing faster every year, and there will be a lot of demand for trained hygienists in the future.
What Does a Dental Hygienist Do?
Dental hygienists are preventative oral healthcare specialists. In order to become licensed, you must graduate from a four-year or accredited dental school with a degree in dental hygiene.
In executing that care to patients, dental hygienists:
- Monitor the patient’s oral health history
- Screen for the oral cancers and diseases
- Perform dental cleanings that includes removing plaque and stains
- Screen for cavities, tooth decay, and gum loss/periodontal disease
- Apply cavity preventing treatments
- Administer x-rays
- Develop an ongoing relationship with individual patients
- Execute diagnostic tests including x-rays
- Take dental impressions (molds) for dentures and orthodontic services
- Place temporary fillings
- Administer local anesthetic
Dental hygienists also help in facilitating dental surgeries and other more complex procedures, like periodontal scalings, tooth implants, and extractions. In some practices, hygienists may also complete the follow-up after some of those procedures, remove fillings, and observe the healing process (look for signs of infections, etc.).
What is the Average Salary of a Dental Hygienist?
The BLS compiles data on annual salaries for most professional positions in the U.S. It found that the median (quite literally, the middle of the pay scale) annual wage for hygienists is $76,200 per year. That salary varies from state to state of course. In California, for example, the mean wage (the average) is over $100,000 per year. In Ohio, it’s around $67,000. (Curious about what dental hygienists earn in your state? You can take a look at BLS data here.)
What are the Growth Opportunities for Dental Hygienists?
Right now, dental hygiene is a growth field. Per the BLS, the growth in demand for a dental hygienist is twice that of a dentist (6% vs. 3% for a dentist, for the period 2019 to 2029). That 6% is also faster than the average career, so demand for this type of work is probably also increasing in your region. There are a lot of solid and verifiable reasons why the country is needing dental hygienists now more than ever.
What Are the Causes for the Increased Demand in Dental Hygienists?
Many healthcare fields are seeing an increased demand for a variety of roles because of the sheer number of baby boomers. Firstly, a giant wave of baby boomer dental hygienists are retiring. There is also a spike in the aging population simultaneously. That segment of the public are going to want to take full advantage of the advancements in dental surgeries, especially crowns and implants. Along with that, demand for dentures will likely increase. Fold into the equation gum surgeries and regularly scheduled hygiene appointments. Any reasonably busy dental practice is going to remain busy as our greying population looks to keep their smiles (and gums!) healthy.
Better Public Awareness
Today, people are far more informed on their overall health than they were in the past. That includes, of course, their oral health. Right along with that aging population we discussed above is a broader awareness in the public that gum disease is a very serious condition, as are throat and tongue cancer. Dental hygienists deliver many of those screening services, in addition to dental cleanings, to their patients.
People are also more aware that regular cleanings prevent cavities, and unsightly (and painful) tooth loss. As a member of the dental office, hygienists are vital in offering those services consistently.
Improved Access to Healthcare
In recent years, access to health insurance has expanded. A recent Harvard Study revealed that the Affordable Care Act increased rates of dental coverage by an impressive 18.9%. With more and more of the costs for healthcare access supplemented with various government plans, people have more opportunities for both medical and dental health insurance.
Larger Practices Need More Personnel
The days of the solo dentist are behind us. The trend today is for several dentists to co-practice in a much larger office. The more dentists, the more patients, and the greater the need for support staff. Because hygienists are so important in the delivery of care, larger practices with multiple dentists are going to need that many more hygienists.
The more hygienists dentists have in the office, the more time those dentists have to perform more costly procedures like implant surgeries and so forth. With dental hygienists taking on the hygiene role, the more time dentists have for restorative and cosmetic work.
Specialization Options for Dental Hygienists
Today, there are other career opportunities for dental hygienists that go beyond regular cleanings. For example, after you achieve the required education and certification level, dental hygienists can go onto become a myofunctional therapist.
Myofunctional therapists work with patients who suffer from conditions and disorders that impact muscles around the face and mouth. Dental hygienists can work as a part of a medical team (similarly to a speech and language pathologist) in clinical care environments to help patients with breathing, speech, swallowing, and eating issues.
Once you complete your education and get some job experience, you could also use your skills and expertise to provide dental healthcare in states that allow hygienists to practice outside of dental clinics. This is becoming a more popular option in states that have shortages of primary healthcare providers. While those numbers are limited now, it’s likely that more and more states will follow Colorado and Maine in allowing hygienists to own practices or affiliate on their own, providing services without working directly for a single dentist.
Where Can Dental Hygienists Work?
In addition to dental offices, licensed hygienists are allowed to work in a number of settings including:
- Nursing homes
- Long-term care facilities
- Community health centers
From School to a Long-Term, Challenging Career
Becoming a dental hygienist is challenging, but the rewards are worth that challenge. In addition to job security and growth opportunities, there are many ways that you can further challenge yourself in your career.
To find out more about becoming a dental hygienist, and whether this is the right career move for you, see our other articles on a career in dental hygiene.