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Thinking about temping

Oct. 1, 2018
Dianne Glasscoe Watterson, MBA, RDH, provides some tips for temping as a dental hygienist.

Dianne Glasscoe Watterson, MBA, RDH

Dear Dianne,

I graduated from hygiene school eight years ago and worked full-time until three years ago when I had my first child. I have been a stay-at-home mom since my daughter was born, but now I feel ready to get back in the game. My mom has agreed to keep my daughter for me, so I can work. I am thinking about temping because I really do not want full-time work at this point. Can you give me any pointers about temping?

Tina, RDH

Dear Tina,

When my children were small, I started doing temp work because, like you, I wanted to work some and keep my skills up. I loved being able to pick and choose when I would work, and I enjoyed working in a variety of office settings. My name spread around a four-county area, so my phone was busy with calls from dental practices needing a fill-in hygienist.

Based on my experience, let me give you some pros and cons of temping.


1. I could choose when I wanted to work.

2. I could name my own price. I felt it was fair for my fee to be a little higher than the going rate since I didn’t get any benefits, and the call was often spur-of-the-moment.

3. If I went into an office that I didn’t like, I didn’t have to go back!

4. Most offices were gracious and thankful to have me since it prevented them from having to cancel and reschedule a whole day of hygiene patients.

5. Temping may lead to a permanent position in a great office.


1. The call often comes very early in the morning from a desperate business assistant or doctor who has just been notified that the hygienist is unable to work. If you choose to temp for them, you have to drop everything you had planned for that day.

2. Some offices have high-quality instruments and equipment—and some do not. I always carried two full sets of my own banded, sterile instruments with me, just in case. I’ve been in offices where there was not a sharp curette on the premises.

3. Working in an unfamiliar office is stressful until you get oriented and find everything you need to do the job. The equipment might be old and clunky or state of the art. Either way, it will take a while to become comfortable working there. It’s like trying to cook in someone else’s kitchen.

4. There’s no way of knowing how you will be received by dental assistants or other hygienists who work there. Some are friendly and helpful, and others treat you like you have leprosy. Don’t expect instant acceptance.

5. Some practices may use practice management software that is unfamiliar to you, so you may need help with entering chart notes, etc.

Tips to enhance your temping experience

Always make sure the doctor knows your rate before you get there. Never go into an office without having a compensation discussion. If you are uncomfortable talking about money, get over it. You are helping this office in a substantial way, and you deserve to be paid fairly. You have to make sure this happens by informing the doctor of your rate. If pay in this office is commission-based, I recommend you give them a daily or hourly rate to protect yourself.

Never, ever participate in lunchtime gossip with other staff members. Do not expect other staff members to invite you to eat lunch with them. If they do invite you, by all means, join them.

Take it upon yourself to break the ice with the patient by approaching him or her in the reception room with an outstretched hand and smile: “Hi, Mrs. Smith. I’m Tina, and it’s good to meet you. Lisa is unable to be here today, and to avoid interrupting your care, I’ll be seeing you today.”

If you notice some nice dentistry when you do the tour of the mouth or during the appointment, brag on the doctor’s work to the patient.

Find out ahead of time when and how to summon the doctor to do the hygiene exam. To help stay on schedule, I prefer to do the tour of the mouth, take any necessary x-rays, perform any needed chartings, and then summon the doctor. If there is soft debris present, I recommend that you polish first. Then the doctor can do an “interrupted” exam at any point in the treatment sequence. If you wait until you are completely finished, you are just asking to be kept waiting, which (as you know) can wreck your schedule.

Do not hesitate to ask for help with operating high-tech equipment, such as digital pano machines, etc.

If you notice a breach in infection control, find a way to mention it discreetly. You are not there to open a can of worms or change the way they do things in the office. You are there to help them out for one day. If you make a big deal out of something negative you observe, it is certain that you will not be invited back. Make going back your decision, not theirs. Simply said, guard your words, and make the staff glad you were there.

It is to your advantage to insist that the proper taxes be withheld from your pay. As a fill-in hygienist, you do not qualify as an independent contractor. If the practice does not take out taxes for you, then you will pay them at tax time, especially if the doctor issues you a 1099 form.

Many areas of the country have services that furnish temporary employees. If you work for a temp agency, the agency will discuss pay and hours with the doctor and find places for you to work. However, temp agencies differ on how employees are compensated. Some agencies pay the temp employee after the doctor pays the agency, and some insist that the doctor pays the fill-in employee directly.

As you can see, there are many considerations when working as a temp hygienist. I think I could write a book about my temp experiences, both good and bad. But overall, temping was a very positive experience for me, and it suited my season of life with small children. I thoroughly enjoyed some offices and temped multiple times for them, while others were a one-shot deal. If nothing else, temping showed me that dental practices are dynamically different. Realizing those differences helped me as I moved into practice management consulting.

All the best,

Dianne Glasscoe Watterson, MBA, RDH, is an award-winning author, speaker, and consultant. She has published hundreds of articles, numerous textbook chapters, and three books. Her new DVD on instrument sharpening is available under the Products tab on her website at wattersonspeaks.com. Visit her website for information about upcoming speaking engagements. She may be contacted at (336) 472-3515 or by email at [email protected].