80420266 © Fsstock | Dreamstime.com
Dreamstime M 80420266 2 65005fc0db4a9

Elevating the dental hygienist profession and tackling workforce issues requires industry collaboration

Sept. 12, 2023
The dental hygienist workforce shortage is a pressing issue that affects access to oral health care. Here's what the ADHA and ASDO say must happen to move things forward.

Note from Jackie Sanders, RDH chief editor: National Dental Hygiene Month is recognized throughout the month of October. In honor of the profession, RDH will share perspectives from the American Dental Hygienists' Association (ADHA) and their members.

As an industry, we understand better than anyone that oral health is essential to overall health. Ensuring that every individual has access to quality, affordable dental care is a vision we share – as dental professionals, and as the organizations that support them.

But the reality in America today is that there are not enough dental professionals to accommodate every person who needs care. In fact, a recent study found that workforce shortages continue to make hiring “extremely challenging,” with more than one-third of dentists currently actively recruiting for hygienists and assistants. That is why our organizations—the American Dental Hygienists’ Association (ADHA) and the Association of Dental Support Organizations (ADSO)—are collaborating to address the workforce challenges faced by our industry.

This past summer, as ADHA brought thousands of dental hygienists to Chicago for its annual conference, which ADSO was proud to sponsor, our organizations partnered for multiple educational sessions with hygienists, dentists, and other experts in oral health to shine a spotlight on the issues facing the profession today. The most commonly discussed challenges? Workforce shortages, cumbersome licensure regulations, and the need to elevate the dental hygiene profession to a level that is commensurate with the vital role they play in patient health.

Workforce shortages

The dental hygienist workforce shortage is a pressing issue that affects access to oral health care. ADSO and ADHA are working closely to strengthen employment pipelines for hygienists, in particular through efforts to remove barriers to entry, increase funding for hygiene training, and enhance hygienists’ freedom to operate at the highest level of their license. In addition, earlier this year ADSO launched a task force to explore the issues impacting recruitment and retainment of dentists, dental hygienists and dental assistants. Continued collaboration between educational institutions, groups such as the ADHA and ADSO, and policymakers will be crucial to developing comprehensive strategies that address workforce shortages effectively.

Addressing licensing regulations

Existing licensing regulations for dental hygienists are often overly complex and time-consuming. Worse still, they vary widely across states and jurisdictions, meaning hygienists are often at a loss as to how to navigate them and be able to practice where they’re needed. These regulations create barriers to entry and limit the mobility of hygienists, hindering their ability to respond to workforce demands and serve underserved areas.

Throughout the ADHA Conference, there was widespread agreement that streamlining licensing procedures, establishing reciprocity agreements between states such as interstate compacts, and implementing standardized requirements will be essential to alleviating these burdens and enabling dental hygienists to practice more flexibly and efficiently. The good news is we’re making progress thanks to the advocacy of both our organizations, with three additional states—Iowa, Tennessee, and Washington—enacting licensure laws earlier this year. But there’s much work left to do.

The need for industry collaboration

As we seek to overcome the challenges faced by dental hygienists, industry wide advocacy and support are paramount. Professional associations, educational institutions, and policymakers must work together to promote the value and contributions of dental hygienists. By simplifying licensing procedures, expanding educational programs, and promoting collaboration among dental professionals, together we will enhance access to care, alleviate workforce shortages, and optimize patient outcomes.

At ADHA and ADSO, we believe that by providing a supportive environment, dental hygienists can thrive, contribute to their full potential, and meet the growing oral health needs of the population.

About the Author

Andrew Smith

Andrew Smith is the Chief Executive Officer of the Association of Dental Support Organizations (ADSO), a non-pro­fit organization committed to providing support to its members, allowing affiliated dentists to focus on patients, expand access to quality dental care and improve the oral health of their communities. Prior to joining ADSO, Andrew served as executive vice president of government relations and external affairs for Parallel (formerly Surterra Wellness) where he managed the state and federal government relations teams, served as the company’s chief advocate and spokesperson to policymakers and regulators, and led the company’s advocacy and communications goals in the public affairs space.