Editor's Note: Why do dental hygienists leave?

Nov. 19, 2015
A dental hygienist tweeted, "How do I tell my mom I don't want to be a dental hygienist anymore?" Why do dental hygienists leave the profession?  

While scrolling through my Twitter feed the other day, I saw a young woman's tweet: "How do I tell my mom I don't want to be a dental hygienist anymore?"

She could have been a student, but it was unclear if she was. Kara Vavrosky shares an anecdote on page 24 about her meltdown in dental hygiene school. The exertion required at dental hygiene schools is grueling, exacting, and a few tears are often shed. Or, she could have been one of the dozens who mentioned in the 2015 RDH eVillage salary survey (visit DentistryIQ.com to see some of the articles) that they would never tell anyone within listening distance to pursue a career in dental hygiene.

It's not even necessarily for concerns about the traditional solo general practitioner's office. A Dallas hygienist was discussing the proliferation of dental service organization offices in the city. She said the environment was "more like a retail store." She said the dentists are employees too, often competing with other branch offices in production.

"The pressure is for production, not patient relationships," she said. "I desired a career in dental hygiene for all of the opposite reasons."

The saddest comment about the career choice of dental hygiene in the survey was: "As a parent of a high school senior, I find it very difficult to recommend anyone go to school to be a dental hygienist. Some weeks I work three offices to try to get 25 hours. I will never get a paid holiday or vacation day for the rest of my career. I regret not going to nursing school."

The most amusing comment from the survey, in my opinion, was from a hygienist in an office that recently brought on an associate. The new doctor and owner then proceeded to cut staff bonuses. The hygienist noted, "It's obvious they are happy with their decision based on all the travel they've enjoyed-both domestic and international."

Why is this amusing to me? Doctors seem to relish cutting wages, working hours, and benefits due to the enormous surplus of dental hygienists (according to the salary survey, 72% of dental hygienists believe there is one). I think it is amusing when rank-and-file hygienists can see quite clearly through the numbers on a spreadsheet.

What would turn around this suggestion for a mass exodus from dental hygiene? Although compensation issues are important, I'm not sure if it's that pivotal. For example, our inclination was to believe the situation behind the "saddest" comment above is very widespread. Only 51% of dental hygienists work more than 30 hours a week. So we asked hygienists if their average weekly schedule provided enough work to make ends meet, figuring the number to be low.

To the contrary, 82% work the number of hours they prefer (they just dislike commuting all over the place to earn them without any other benefits).

In my opinion, a simple twist on the Golden Rule would work wonders. Respect dental hygienists as you would want to be respected. A renewed demonstration of respect for the dental hygiene profession would probably turn the salary survey into a huge happy dance. "I am sure glad Mom supports my decision to be a dental hygienist."

Mark Hartley

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