CHRISTINE NATHE, RDH, MS
Dentists in many states report local shortages in dental hygiene manpower, although no published data can be found confirming such a shortage. This was the introduction to my thesis report in graduate school decades ago. Interestingly, a few years ago, this could still be heard discussed in meetings and on the Internet, but times have changed. Now it is more common to see blogs from dental hygienists who are worried about finding employment, the impact the economy has had on those seeking dental care, and the proliferation of dental hygiene schools in proprietary settings. It does seem that shortages and saturation can be cyclic.
However, another interesting topic that is repeated in many venues is the reported shortage of dentists. I guess times have changed. But is there a shortage of dentists? I ask this simple question because decades ago, when there were anecdotal reports of dental hygienist shortages, I never felt there was much of a shortage - maybe some maldistribution, but not a shortage. When I first heard this, I felt there might be a shortage, but lately it doesn't seem like there is a tremendous shortage, and I don't hear about a shortage from my colleagues around the country either.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of dental hygienists is expected to grow by 38% from 2010 to 2020, which is much faster than the average for all occupations. The outlook further states that the demand for dental services follows trends in the economy because the patient or private insurance companies pay for these services. As a result, during economic slow times, demand for dental services may decrease. During these times, dental hygienists may have trouble finding employment or, if they are currently employed, they might work fewer hours.1
This seems like a cautionary outlook. The American Dental Hygienists' Association reported that 67% of dental hygienists surveyed indicated there were fewer dental hygiene employment opportunities in their state than in previous years. Furthermore, hygienists reported that the struggling economy has forced employers to decrease hygiene hours and/or eliminate hygiene positions in some areas of the country.2
Regarding dentist workforce, the BLS reports that the employment of dentists is expected to grow by 21% from 2010 to 2020, faster than the average for all occupations. The BLS is still speculating that Americans with new or expanded dental insurance coverage will be more likely to visit a dentist than in the past, and that cosmetic services such as teeth-whitening will become increasingly popular.3
I do not know the answer regarding the shortage, by the way. But I do feel that because of dentistry and dental hygiene's responsibility to serve the public, it is important that the professions study workforce concerns. Unfortunately, many issues lead to legitimate concerns regarding access to dental care. However, in order to understand the current dilemma, it is necessary to be aware of the issues surrounding the situation and to identify the supply of and demand for workers.
1. United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2011-2012 Edition, Dental Hygienists, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Healthcare/Dental-hygienists.htm#tab-6
2. American Dental Hygienists' Association 2009 Dental Hygiene Job Market and Employment Survey: Employment Survey. Retrieved from http://www.adha.org/careerinfo/wages_and_trends.htm on June 5, 2012.
3. United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2011-2012 Edition, Dentists, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Healthcare/Dentists.htm#tab-
CHRISTINE NATHE, RDH, MS, is a professor and graduate program director at the University of New Mexico, Division of Dental Hygiene, in Albuquerque, N.M. She is also the author of "Dental Public Health Research" (www.pearsonhighered.com/educator), which is in its third edition with Pearson. She can be reached at [email protected] or (505) 272-8147.