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How to leverage the dental hygienist shortage

Oct. 26, 2021
Now is the time to work the dental hygienist shortage to your advantage. Practices are trying hard to attract top people, and you can shop to find the best fit for you.

Dental practices are experiencing a decrease in applicants. This problem is a prominent conversation on social media platforms, job boards postings, and in countless articles. Why is there a shortage, and where did all the dental hygienists go?

It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way we practice in dentistry. New protocols and the need for additional personal protective equipment (PPE), plus concerns for safety, caused many to leave the profession or change how their employment looks. According to the US Department of Labor Statistics, Employment of dental hygienists is projected to grow 11% from 2020 to 2030, faster than the average for all occupations.” It is further explained that the reasons for this could be that individuals are leaving the profession and retiring.

You’re still here! What does this mean for those currently practicing dental hygiene? How can you leverage this shortage as you enter or reenter the workforce? Let’s find out.

Reinforcing your value

What value do you bring to your practice? Dental practices are feeling the shortage of dental hygienists. Without a proper dental hygiene department, practices find themselves struggling to keep up with the preventive and periodontal needs of patients. Dental hygienists not only complete the physical act of scaling but provide an educational and comprehensive treatment component as well.

During appointments, dental hygienists share their knowledge to educate patients about oral-systemic connections, discuss customized prevention modalities, provide adjunctive treatments, focus on case acceptance, treatment plan, and more. Without a hygiene team, dentists may not have time to complete important restorative, surgical, and high-dollar treatments for patients. Practicing at the top of our scope of practice is how we create a comprehensive practice for our patients.

Understanding your value is the first step. If you struggle in this area, I highly recommend investing in yourself to learn more. Programs such as Thrive in the OP allow you to take a deep dive into different aspects of your career and personal life.

Finding your fit

Have you stopped to consider what is important to you as an employee? So often, we focus on the tangible benefits of employment, but often when asked about workplace satisfaction our responses have little to do with pay and insurance. Finding a practice that is a good fit for you isn’t easy. It isn’t always the first practice you find out of school, and it doesn’t have to be. Before you accept a position, there are ways to determine if it is a good fit for the practice and for you.

Use the interview process to assess team dynamics and practice protocols, and whether there is access to mentoring and education. Do the findings align with your values? If you have requests or suggestions for change prior to accepting a position, be sure to get it in writing and establish a protocol for further discussion and assessment, such as in a performance review. Without this step you could be gambling with your happiness. 

Another way to best experience how other organizations operate is to work as a temp hygienist. Temporary staffing agencies are also feeling the effects of the dental hygienist shortage. Most agencies are looking for temps to work with their network of practices. Temp agencies may be set up locally, regionally, or nationally. Check to see what is available in your area and then use the temp time to meet different practices in an arrangement that is beneficial for all. The temp agency helps offices in need, you’re paid while learning about new practices, and patients receive treatment! 

Incentives, bonuses, flexibility, oh my!

The shortage of dental hygienists has required many practices to reevaluate their team’s wages, incentives, and flexibility. Hygienists have reported changes in their wages due to the increase in new-hire wages. There has also been an increase in sign-on bonuses and the formation of retention bonus programs to incentivize current employees to stay.

Additionally, dental hygiene professionals have shared that they now have more influence on their individual clinic schedules and have increased schedule flexibility. This has allowed some to find a better balance between work and family, and it has also allowed a focus on self-care and rest.

Now is your time

When I entered the dental hygiene field in 2010, the vibe was very different than it is today. My peers and I struggled to find full-time employment, medical benefits were not common, and wages were extremely low. No one was hiring and we were happy to find any position we could. That is not the landscape of today. New grads (and transitional professionals) are in a position to own their value, find their best fit, and access higher wages and benefits. Seek those things for yourself. Now is your time!

Megen Elliott, MS-OCL, RDH, CDA, has more than 13 years of experience in the dental field. She finds joy in inspiring others to grow and reach their full potential. As an educator, interprofessional speaker, volunteer leader, and consultant, Megen is able to explore many areas of the dental industry. She currently serves as Pro Team manager with the oral wellness brand, Twice. Megen enjoys connecting with dental professionals online and at conferences. As founder of Hygiene Happy Vibes, she hopes dental professionals will build each other up! Contact Megen on Instagram @yourdentalfriendmegen or [email protected].

About the Author

Megen Elliott, MS-OCL, RDH, CDA

Megen Elliott, MS-OCL, RDH, CDA, has more than 14 years of experience in the dental field. She’s an educator, author, interprofessional speaker, volunteer leader, and consultant. Megen is the program director of the dental assistant program at Northwood Technical College in Rice Lake, Wisconsin, where she’s also a faculty member. She’s a consultant with dental organizations and individuals, through talent acquisition and project management. Megen’s enjoys networking with dental colleagues online and at conferences. As the founder of Hygiene Happy Vibes, she encourages building each other up.

Updated October 24, 2022