How Dentists Can Help to Combat the Dental Hygienist Shortage

How Dentists Can Help to Combat the Dental Hygienist Shortage

Being a dentist is full of challenges. And one of the biggest challenges dentists are facing at the moment is the dental hygienist shortage. When you don’t have enough hygienists, it significantly impacts your ability to schedule patients. And of course, that negatively impacts your profits.

But what can you do? You certainly can’t force people to become hygienists, right? Well, no, you can’t. But you can inspire them to become hygienists by making the profession more accessible and appealing.

Today, we’re going to discuss just how you, the dentist, might do that! You can make an impact on the dental hygienist shortage. But first, we should dissect the problem a bit …

The Reasons People Aren’t Signing Up to Be Hygienists

There is no doubt that the pandemic has made this worse in some ways. Hygienists may be leaving because they’re tired of dealing with PPE and fluctuating patient volumes. These things have been worsened thanks to what we’ve been calling “The Big Dip.” Many of them may also be especially concerned about exposing themselves and their families to the virus. On the other hand, hopefuls who were planning to attend hygiene school may have been set back. How so? Well, by attendance restrictions and financial woes brought about by this moment in history.

All of that said, let’s be honest: There was a dental hygienist shortage before COVID-19 hit.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated in 2019 that some 13,300 dental hygienist positions would be open for the taking by 2029. And as you probably know, this role pays pretty good money! So, what’s the deal?

One major reason for the dental hygienist shortage is that we don’t have enough dental hygiene programs. In some regions, a potential hygienist might be hard-pressed to find a school close enough for their needs. It also isn’t cheap. The American Dental Education Association estimates that tuition averages between $22,692 and $36,382 depending on the extent of the degree you’re looking to complete.

This is a substantial cost, especially for those who may be attending school (and paying for it) a second time after deciding to make a career path shift.

Another issue contributing to the dental hygienist shortage is scheduling. The more hygiene appointments you can fit into each day, the more exam fees you earn and the more restorative appointments you book after those procedures are recommended during cleanings.

But a common sentiment among hygienists is that they’re overwhelmed.

A recent article from RDH discusses how burnt out hygienists are feeling. It also mentions how much they want some breathing room to tackle each patient’s oral health from a more holistic standpoint. They want time to spend exploring treatments like saliva testing, biofilm management, airway evaluation and nutritional counseling.

Hygienists are craving schedules that are less tightly packed, both for stress management purposes and because they feel they could use longer appointments to do more for each patient.

That same article notes that “In social media forums, hygienists report feeling unsupported, disrespected, and undervalued by their dentist employers.” You certainly don’t want that! We can see how this would contribute to a dental hygienist shortage.

So, how do we fix this? How do we get more hygienists through our doors and keep them there?

Tip #1: Invest in Outreach and Education

It all starts at the beginning. There are a lot of younger people who don’t realize what a great career option dental hygiene could be.

If they were able to recognize this earlier, they could use the savings they built for college tuition to attend hygiene school. That's better than figuring out how to pay later, when they’re already paid through four years for something else.

Put someone on your team, perhaps from your marketing department, in charge of keeping a finger on the pulse of local high schools’ job fairs. When you find out about one, be there. Make the time to print informational materials. Then, grab one of your more charismatic and enthusiastic hygienists, and go stand behind that booth.

This is playing the long game, yes. But when you combine this approach with the other tips we’ll talk about today, you’re creating a long-term stream of potential employees for yourself.

After all, which practice do you think those teenagers will come back to after they finish hygiene school?

Ensure they also know that there are virtual program options. This is especially key if you don’t have any schools offering them in your area.

Here are two other tactics within this same idea:

Be open to dental assistants rising up in the ranks. Allow them to go back to school while working with you. Consider whether or not it might be a worthy cost investment to help them pay their way through. At the very least, you can strive to be more flexible with their schedule to make it happen.

Make sure your existing hygienists know that you are open to speaking with and encouraging their friends and family to pursue careers as hygienists at your practice. Perhaps invite younger siblings to spend the day shadowing their hygienist family member.

Tip #2: Rethink Scheduling and Workload

Obviously you still have to balance this with your practice’s financial needs. But there are creative ways to manage revenue while restructuring appointment volume.

First, don’t think of it as turning patients away. Aim to avoid that! Ask your hygienists how they feel about their appointment load. Do they wish they had one less a day? Two? Take their answers and use them to figure out the average sentiment. Then make a hiring plan based on it. Let's say you have 7 hygienists and they each take 10 appointments a day. They wish that number were 8. You’ll have 14 slots to fill. That means you’ll want to find three new hygienists. As a result, you'll make the schedule more appealing for your existing ones.

The thing is, this will also be a positive for the new ones. That will make it a little easier to find them. And it may continue to attract great hygienists as time goes on. If this feels too drastic right away, consider making the shift in stages. Hire one new hygienist and cut back on a few of your other hygienists’ appointments as able.

From the financial perspective, we know you’re balking at the above. But establishing this precedent will benefit you with fantastic hygienists who stick around. And there are ways to offset those costs … like dental membership plans.

Dental membership plans have your patients pay for their care out of pocket. It happens on a subscription-like schedule that gives your practice a steadier stream of income. Thus, they could create more cash flow for you to work with. Just an idea!

If you’d like to explore the topic of overscheduling further, we have a blog post all about that, too! Does Your Dental Practice Overschedule? Let’s Evaluate!

Tip #3: Create Comradery and a Sense of Pride

We know that you respect and value your hygienists. And when they really think about it, they know that too. But anyone who is in a work environment that frustrates them—in this case because they feel their schedule is too tight for them to give the care they’re passionate about providing—feels discouraged and disgruntled at times.

The good news is that you can combat this! Build a sense of loyalty in your hygienists. You can do this by designing a work environment that feels supportive and even a little fun.

Here are a few of our favorite ideas on how to do it:

  • Host monthly open forums where your hygienists have your undivided attention so that they can express their concerns and frustrations.
  • Order lunch in for them once a month (at least), and make sure your front office spaces out every hygienist’s appointments for that one day so that they can really sit down, mingle, eat, and enjoy.
  • Acknowledge when a hygienist goes above and beyond—spotting a major dental problem or taking a few extra appointments because of emergencies or schedule mistakes. This can be as simple as expressing that you noticed it to them, or as big as making a thank you announcement in front of everyone or giving them a gift card for a nice dinner.
  • Give your hygienists the peace of mind of having standard, scheduled breaks in addition to lunch. This way, they won’t feel guilty about stepping away when things are busy to use the bathroom or take a moment of freedom from PPE.
  • Keep everyone updated on how you’re working to solve issues they are concerned about. Whether they need more PPE, have some broken equipment, or any other problem, let them know you’re working on it on a regular basis until the fix is there.
  • Showcase them as professionals to your patients. This advice comes from our friend and renowned dental consultant Roger Levin. He notes that when dentists communicate with hygienists in a way that conveys the respect they have for the role, it will also make the patient feel better! He recommends finding ways to emphasize the education and credentials of your hygienists, too. That could be a fun blog topic for your practice: Do a “Meet the Hygienist” series where you share a different hygienist’s background in each post.

These are all great ways to improve the daily routine for your hygienists!

And when you do that, you make their work environment a generally positive one. In turn, they’ll feel a sense of loyalty and comradery. Those are two of the best things to instill in employees if you want them to stick around long-term.

What happens when we don't have enough hygienists to go around? Well, we’re somewhat handcuffed, no matter how skilled and passionate we are as dentists. We must ensure that more are available in the future.

When you are able to keep your hygienists happy, as well as invest in the future of the hygiene profession and remain mindful of overscheduling, you might find that you’ve made strides to solving the shortage—at least in your community. That is essential not only for your practice’s success, but for the outlook of the entire dental profession.

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