A career as a dental hygienist can be a lucrative and rewarding one. As of 2014, Forbes Magazine ranked dental hygiene as the #2 best job in healthcare, only second to biomedical engineering in job growth projections. Dental hygienists work flexible hours, receive very good pay, experience less stress than in most other medical fields and enjoy good job security. But to decide if it is for you, you probably need to know a little more about what it’s like to be a dental hygienist.
A typical day for a dental hygienist will involve waking up early and working six to eight hours (most hygienists work part-time). The majority of time is spent doing cleanings to remove difficult spots or stains before patients see the dentist. Other tasks include taking x-rays, applying sealants and fluoride, assisting the dentist during procedures and teaching preventive care so that patients can maintain healthy mouths. Depending on the practice, you may also be required to perform more complex procedures like restoring metal restorations, applying fillings, applying anesthesia and removing sutures. While these types of things may be considered more stressful than medical billing, for example, considering that the average salary for Hawaiian dental hygienists is near $70,000 per year (with a high end of closer to $90,000), you might agree that the occasional stress is worth it.
If this kind of work day appeals to you, the first step to becoming a dental hygienist is a degree and a license. The requirements for licensing are different for each state. In Hawaii, you must have a degree from an accredited institution and also pass at least three tests. These include the National Board Exam, plus either the Regional Exam, the American Board of Dental Examiners Dental Hygiene Exam, or the CRDTS Dental Hygiene Exam. You will also need local anesthesia certification (though this is covered by most university programs). But if all this seems daunting, don’t fear. There are lots of ways to get your degree and certification in whatever method works best for you.
The traditional way to get your degree is from a brick and mortar college or university. There, one can get either an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in the subject. The University of Hawaii at Manoa (4-year bachelor’s program) is the only such place at the moment and Hawaii currently has no specialty or vocational schools for dental hygiene. However, they do offer flexible schedules to give consideration for students currently working. If you are willing to leave the state, there are many more options. The closest programs are in California, Nevada and Oregon. Any such program will prepare you for the tests you must pass, but you can also find study information on the American Dental Hygenists’ Association’s website (http://www.adha.org/national-exam). Incidentally, most of the exams have a 90% pass rate, so as long as you are able to study, you should have nothing to worry about.
As a resident of Hawaii, unfortunately you have few local options for schooling. The University of Hawaii’s program will be the most comprehensive and carry the most prestige, as well as increasing your legitimacy and therefore likely your salary too. Still, if four years is too long, or perhaps you have no high school diploma or GED, it might be best to think of a mainland associate’s degree or other certification program. There are entry level programs for those without a diploma or with low GPAs. The main thing is being able to pass your tests, so make sure to find the school in your budget that will prepare you properly. If you choose a vocational school, make sure they are approved by the ADHA (American Dental Hygienists’ Association, http://www.adha.org/dental-hygiene-programs).
Once you have your license to practice, you will be able to add the initials “R.D.H” after your name. Then you will start your job search. Along with those in other states, dental hygiene jobs are still growing in Hawaii, so you have a good likelihood of being hired.
Dental hygiene is an ideal career for many people, especially those who value 8-hour, low-stress jobs that compensate well. Many say that the best parts of this job are seeing the results of their labor right away, the relationships they develop with their patients and the feeling of being appreciated by everyone they work with. If you decide to pursue dental hygiene – and have no problem spending your day with your fingers in someone else’s mouth – you can look forward to a great working life.