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Career evolution

May 1, 2005
Group practices boost hygienists’ careers with opportunities and support

Group practices boost hygienists’ careers with opportunities and support

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Plenty of jobs are available. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job market for dental hygienists is expected to rank among the fastest growing in coming years. Therefore, hygienists should be able to find a variety of employment options.

The challenge will be to sort through these options to find positions that meet their needs. One option is a job with a group practice.

Group practices are formed when a number of dentists affiliate and share resources. This strengthens the member practices financially and translates into compelling opportunities for hygienists.


“Group practices are in a position to offer different compensation packages than those found in solo practices,” says Suzanne Decker, human resources director of Aspen Dental Management Inc., which represents about 60 dental offices in the northeast.

The key difference is that many solo practices pay hygienists a percentage of production. In contrast, Aspen Dental offers a base salary with a monthly incentive program that provides the potential for added earnings.

Heartland Dental Care hygienist Michelle Miller uses the DIAGNOdent by KaVo. All Heartland employees learn to use the DIAGNOdent, a laser measuring device that detects decay in the pits and fissures of teeth. Heartland continuously evaluates new technology to add to the patient care delivered in more than 150 offices in nine states.
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“Because the base salary is guaranteed,” Decker says, “hygienists can better plan their financial commitments. At the same time, the incentive program means that hygienists can reap the rewards of their own initiative when they find ways to contribute to the practice’s financial performance.”

Flexibility in location

Another advantage of group practices is that they offer hygienists location flexibility.

“We have practices in six states,” Decker says. “If one of our hygienists wants to relocate within our network, he or she can continue to work for us.”

This is beneficial for hygienists who begin careers when their other life decisions may not be finalized.

“Right out of college, hygienists may not be sure where they want to live,” Decker says. “There may be other significant changes still in their futures such as marriage or buying a home.”

By offering them the option of relocating without also having to develop completely new professional contacts, group practices make hygienists’ lives a bit easier. Some Aspen Dental hygienists work at more than one location simply for the variety.

Advancement opportunities

Group practices offer hygienists benefits from a professional standpoint. For example, Heartland Dental Care, a group practice with more than 140 offices in eight Midwestern states and Florida, has protocols that clearly define hygienists’ responsibilities.

“In our practices, the role of the hygienist is clear, organized, and secure,” says Julie Thomas, vice president of operations for Heartland Dental Care.

Practices often use the same equipment, so whatever a hygienist learns at one office can be applied at others within the group practice. Both Aspen Dental and Heartland, for example, use KODAK dental film and chemicals for diagnostic imaging.

“Our X-ray guidelines are the same throughout our organization. Most dental professionals work best in an environment of consistency, where each patient is treated consistently to maintain optimum care,” Thomas says.

Thomas began her career as a hygienist in a private practice. When she started, she had to do her job and figure out what the job should entail.

“My first two years in practice were a bit of a struggle,” she says. “I filled out my own insurance forms, made and confirmed all my own appointments, and developed my own protocols. Through all this, I was totally on my own. I had nothing to model my job on - I was reinventing the wheel. That all changed when I came to Heartland.”

Heartland Dental Care provides new hygienists opportunities to be mentored by other hygienists within the practice.

“We often find that hygienists can accelerate their learning curves because there are so many opportunities to learn from other hygienists,” Thomas says. “Within a year or so, hygienists can advance their skills to a point that might take several years in a smaller practice.”

Group practices also can offer hygienists career advancement opportunities.

“At Heartland, hygienists may grow clinically as periodontal therapists, or they may move into training, mentoring, or management positions,” Thomas says.

Aspen Dental and Heartland Dental encourage hygienists to explore related career opportunities such as education, training, professional speaking, coaching and writing for publication, as well as management positions within the practice’s corporate organization.

Approaching a group practice

If a group practice might be a fit, how do you approach one about a job? Hygienists may apply at multiple practices through a single contact: the practices’ corporate human resources, or HR, department.

“Our HR department knows where we’re expanding and where we need team members,” Thomas says. “Applicants may send a resume to Jayme Schultheis, human resources manager, that indicates where they’d like to work, and she’ll forward the information to any practices ready to add hygiene positions.”

Schultheis accepts resumes by email at jschultheis@, or visit Heartland’s Web site at to review philosophies and locations.

Aspen Dental accepts applications on its Web site,, as well as in any of its offices. Prospective associates may visit the Aspen Dental Web site or read newspaper listings for job openings.

“Aspen Dental is looking for hygienists who have successful, well-rounded educations,” Decker says. “Often, hygiene students who have successfully completed programs that stress soft-tissue management do well in our practice, as do students who have completed clinical internships.”

Many Aspen Dental hygienists have backgrounds in dental assisting, which provides them with hands-on clinical experience.

Another tip from Heartland Dental is to stay current in the practice of hygiene. To graduating students, Thomas says, “My advice to hygiene students is to balance their academic experience with real-world experience.” Some of this can come from reading industry journals, but Thomas says all Heartland Dental offices welcome visits from dental professionals.

“We have an open-door policy,” she says. “As long as the dental professional makes arrangements in advance, he or she is encouraged to come to our practices to learn more about how we work.” Arrangements may be made through Schultheis.

A career at a group practice may not fit every hygienist. Nevertheless, group practices offer many advantages ranging from competitive compensation packages to career development opportunities. As you embark on your hygiene career, you may find that a group practice will help you pay off student loans and provide a lifelong career.

Erlene Thomas is a specialty market specialist focusing on hygiene for Eastman Kodak Company’s Dental Systems Group. She has been with Kodak 31 years. Reach her at (800) 933-8031.