by Mark Hartley, Editor
Who is a typical hygienist? If the information contained in this article is distributed during a "career day" at the local high school, we might want to take a look at the middle of the pack. According to the chart at right, the "median" states are Missouri, Idaho, and New Hampshire — not a bad combination of East, West, and Midwest. Of course, the problem is that, among the 1,820 responses to the survey from across the country, only 4 percent came from those three states. It might be more tempting to review the states with the most responses: California (152), Texas (102), Wisconsin (102), and Florida (97) — 25 percent came from those four states. However, I think we all agree California is in a league of its own. An examination of the latter two indicates a struggle to remain competitive with dental hygiene salaries. Florida is next door to Alabama, and Wisconsin is at the lower end of the pay scale too. I am a native Texan now living in nearby Oklahoma; if we spend too much time examining the Lone Star state, the protests about favoritism would be justifiable.
My vote goes for a closer examination of dental hygiene careers in Missouri. I recently attended the annual meeting for the Missouri Dental Hygienists' Association and was impressed with the members who attended. They chose a quiet location that was ideal for networking at the Lake of the Ozarks. They worked hard and played hard. At the end of the day, they were concerned about what the state's dentists were doing legislatively to change the scope of dental hygiene practice, so they listened carefully to their lobbyist. I would not insult Missouri's hygienists by describing them as typical. But, with 44 responses, the "Show Me" state was truly in the middle.
If $51,870 a year is the typical annual income for a full-time American hygienist, then the other financial data about Missouri hygienists might be considered average too.
Thirty-five readers reported earning hourly rates. The lowest was $20.25 an hour, while the highest was $34.50 — a span of $14.25. Two daily rates — $201 and $225 were reported. Only eight readers have not received a raise within the last two years. Twenty-six (59 percent) work more than 30 hours a week. Among the full-time hygienists in Missouri, three readers projected a 2003 income of $90,000, $84,000, and $75,000. All three of the top salaries are based on commission earnings. On the low end was an estimate for $30,000. Eleven of the 26 (42 percent) full-time Missouri hygienists projected their 2003 income would fall between $45,000 and $55,000.
As with the overall survey, "part-time" status influenced whether a hygienist received benefits — but not exclusively so. For example, 12 percent of Missouri readers who work full-time do not receive paid vacation. On the other hand, 65 percent of the part-timers receive paid vacation time. As dental hygienists already know, the "right office" is everything.
One full-time hygienist who does not earn paid vacations stated, "I do not have any benefits except for 401k. No vacations or holidays. My doctor feels hygienists are a necessary evil. I am not allowed to do anything but routine recalls. He does not see hygienists as being vital to the practice. The one positive thing is that the pay is good and I really care about the patients."
Although the sarcasm is evident, we were amused by one reader's (who estimated earnings of $51,000 in 2003) comment: "I would really like to work for Oprah, but Chicago is too cold. So I am stuck here, picking teeth!"
A "sort of nice" comment came from someone at the lower end of Missouri's pay scale: "While I wish the salary was more, I do appreciate that I work for a good dentist in a very laid-back and nice setting. Liking my job is worth more than money, or so I tell myself."
About this survey
When we evaluated total income from dental hygiene, we focused only on the readers indicating they work at least 30 hours a week. The lowest annual income from this group was an annual salary of $19,000 in Alabama. A reader from California claimed the highest salary at $167,424 (see related article).
If the readers in a state provided at least 15 responses, then the state is listed individually below. If less than 15 responses were received, a "minimal" amount of information about the state appears on page 28. A sincere attempt was made to eliminate duplicate entries. No attempt was made to verify the accuracy of what readers claimed about salaries and benefits. The survey was conducted on the honor system.
The questionnaire for the 2003 survey was shortened in order to make it simpler to process the results. One question that will definitely re-appear in the 2004 questionnaire will address the urban vs. rural settings of practitioners. The "average" in some of the states likely is the halfway point between the two settings. Other comments about specific questions asked in the 2003 survey include:
• As with past years, we studied whether "job experience" had any effect on pay. It doesn't. Dental offices apparently establish an internal payscale and offer the same amount to both rookies and veterans applying for the job.
• More than likely, hygienists who work on a commission basis are more prevalent than what the survey might suggest. The questionnaire did not solicit specific details on how commissions are set up, since they vary greatly from office to office.
• There are places in the survey results where you have to do the math. Under the "experience" category for each state, the percentages may not quite add up to 100 percent. If it doesn't, the "missing" percentage refers to hygienists who work less than 12 hours a week. A better example, though, is in the information underneath "health insurance." The question asked readers if they "personally" are covered by health insurance. Some buy into an employer's plan, or rely on a spouse's plan for coverage. Again, if the percentages do not add up to 100, the "missing percentage" refers to hygienists who are self-insured or are not covered by health insurance.
The latter group, by the way, made us realize a shortcoming in the 2003 questionnaire. The word "no" was listed as the only option for both the self-insured and the uninsured. The 2004 questionnaire will allow for separate answers for both groups.
RDH thanks the readers who participated in the survey. In a rough-and-tumble economy, it would appear that working conditions in dental hygiene remain stable, if not improving. We certainly wish for more success in 2004.