Dr. Tina Wang scrapes the plaque off a patient’s teeth in her Wellesley dental practice, then gets to work with the polishing tool.
Usually, a dental hygienist does the cleanings here. But a full-time hygienist in this office moved away in January, and Wang told GBH News she hasn’t been able to fully staff back up since then.
“What’s been happening is the doctors, myself included, have been doing cleanings, just to be able to take care of everybody,” Wang said.
That leads to less time for her and the other dentists in her practice to see other patients. Wang said they’ve been posting the position on job sites and asking colleagues, hygienist schools and vendors if they know of anyone qualified who’s looking for a job.
“It’s emotional because my team that’s here are facing challenges and struggles,” she said. “It’s a day-to-day grind for them, and I want to help them.”
Wang said she was thrilled to finally hire a new hygienist a couple of months ago.
“But the next day she said she got another good offer,” she said. “So it was between the two of us, and she took another job.”
It’s a competitive market right now. A poll last month by the American Dental Association shows nearly 40 percent of dental practices are trying to recruit hygienists. Of those, 95 percent say it’s been extremely or very difficult to hire someone. In the 20 largest U.S. cities, the ADA’s polling says only half of hygienist positions are reported as filled.
“We just hear over and over again, ‘What can we do to get more dental hygienists?’” said Rachel Morrissey, a senior research analyst at the ADA. The ADA’s monthly poll of private dental practices shows dental assistants are in high demand, too. Dentists are trying to sweeten the pot to attract candidates.
“More than 80 percent of dentists that are recruiting dental hygienists are raising salaries,” Morrissey said. “They’re also offering more flexible working hours.”
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the median dental hygienist salary was just under $78,000 last year, or more than $37 an hour.
Morrissey co-authored a study last year that estimated 8 percent of dental hygienists left the workforce in 2020. A year later, some had returned.
But hygienist Sarah Crow, president of the Massachusetts Dental Hygienists Association, said the pandemic pushed people out of the field for all kinds of reasons, including child care challenges and personal health concerns in a job that requires close contact. Even before the pandemic, hygienists reported growing dissatisfaction.
“There was concern about lack of respect in their workplace setting,” said Dr. JoAnn Gurenlian of the American Dental Hygienists Association. “They were having to clock out if a patient canceled their appointment. They felt that they just weren’t appreciated. And there were some that were thinking maybe it was time for them to leave.”
Crow said many of her older colleagues aren’t coming back.
“If there was a question in your mind pre-pandemic whether or not you were ready to retire or you were thinking about, you know, just not practicing clinically anymore, the pandemic made up your mind,” Crow said. “And so there were a lot of hygienists in that boat.”
Produced with assistance from the Public Media Journalists Association Editor Corps funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.