Rolling the dice

April 1, 2002
Premature career loss happens in every profession.

By Anne Nugent Guignon, RDH, MPH

Premature career loss happens in every profession. It seems like a remote possibility to most of us, but are you willing to risk your future this way?

If the world's casinos depended on my nickels and dimes for support, they might as well lock the doors and throw away the keys. As far as I am concerned, I work way too hard to have any of my dollars vanish into the jaws of a one-armed bandit or some other form of so-called amusement. If gambling is a form of entertainment for you, please accept my apologies, but, to me, seeing money disappear in this way is about as pleasant as plucking an unwanted hair with hand-held tweezers. My abhorrence to gambling may be a reflection of my Midwestern upbringing, but I suspect it accurately reflects being the oldest of seven kids in a family trying to survive on a teacher's salary.

You may wonder if I have a money fixation. I hope not, but concern over money and financial risk is perhaps a human affliction. Through the years, I have observed that many hygienists are not well-acquainted with real-world business strategies, particularly those that involving finances.

Ten years ago, the man in my life, now my husband, rescued me from "dental hygiene business/finance la-la land." Every time the discussion headed toward my financial future, I rolled my eyes upwards and started to shut down emotionally. I just wanted the answers without having to be accountable or having to balance a checkbook. While I hate to admit my lack of financial maturity, that was a risky game to play.

Suppose that you practice dental hygiene four days a week and your daily compensation is close to the national average of $250 per day, resulting in an annual income of about $40,000. Remember, there are many hygienists who get this figure and nothing more … no vacation, no health insurance, no sick days, no support for continuing education, no profit sharing, no pension, no 401K plan, no uniform allowance, etc. … just a straight dollar compensation.

Now, let's consider 35-year-old Suzy Hygiene. She has practiced full-time since she graduated 15 years ago, has never received any type of benefit compensation, and feels lucky to be able to make such a good income. Over the past few months, Suzy has noticed more and more wrist discomfort, but she dismisses these aches as part of practicing hygiene. However, it is increasingly more difficult to scale without pain. Suzy starts to dread her daily schedule. Finally, in total frustration, she cuts back to three days a week, hoping that her wrist will quit hurting. What has she lost? Well, for starters, peace of mind and $10,000 a year in income for every day that she no longer practices hygiene.

Does that number get your attention? It gets mine. Imagine how many work-related injuries could be prevented with even a fraction of those dollars.

Suzy is now down to working three days a week. Within several months, she starts having severe shoulder and neck pain. She has always had soreness in her shoulders and neck, but now she can't sleep and is miserable. Her physician diagnoses thoracic outlet syndrome, lateral epicondylitis, and carpal tunnel syndrome. He advises Suzy to reduce her work schedule even more since the tasks necessary for clinical dental hygiene are adding to her problems. Months later, her wrists, elbow, shoulder, and neck feel much better, but Suzy's checkbook is suffering. Suzy's dentist has called several times. He wants to know when she can return to work. He has held her position for six months using dental hygienists from a temporary agency, but the employment service fees are mounting, and he wants Suzy to make a decision.

The choices are ugly. Suzy never got around to purchasing a disability policy. If she decides to quit clinical practice altogether, what kind of work can she do? Teaching positions are not plentiful and most require a master's degree. Positions in dental sales are equally hard to find, and most require at least a bachelor's degree. Suzy attended the local community college for her dental hygiene degree. Even though she thought about completing her bachelor's degree many times over the past few years, she always figured she'd do that in the future.

What about going back to school to study for another career? Here is another reality check – most of her dental hygiene credits will not transfer to another degree program. Changing professions becomes an even more daunting prospect since her two children need a parent with an income, not a college-student mom facing another two to four years of tuition and studies.

Suzy loves dental hygiene and has never wanted to do anything else. Sadly, she puts a pencil to paper and calculates that she will lose more than a half million dollars in potential earnings if her career is cut short by 15 years. She has done the simple math. Her calculations do not include future raises or compounding interest rates that increase the power of money over time, projections that would make the numbers even more staggering.

Premature career loss happens in every profession. It seems like a remote possibility to most of us, but are you willing to risk your future this way? If you think you cannot afford to purchase career-saving devices like magnification, perhaps it is time to rethink your options. Is disability coverage all that expensive? It is your health, your career, and your financial well-being that are at stake. For starters, sit down and take a hard look at your future. You don't have to solve all of the problems immediately, but it is a good idea to begin looking at your options. Why not hedge your bets and purchase a disability policy or invest in some good equipment? I am no financial wizard, but I do know that many of us are gambling every day. The stakes are just too high to continue rolling the dice if we really want to practice dental hygiene year after year in the comfort zone.

Anne Nugent Guignon, RDH, MPH, practices clinical dental hygiene in Houston, Texas. She writes, speaks, and presents continuing- education courses on ergonomics and advanced ultrasonic instrumentation through her company, ErgoSonics ( She can be reached by phone at (713) 974-4540 or by e-mail at [email protected].