Getting Ahead

Out to Seek the Tooth

MORE THAN JUST SCRAPING BY: At the University of Maryland Dental School in Baltimore, a dental hygiene student practices teeth cleaning during a recent class.
MORE THAN JUST SCRAPING BY: At the University of Maryland Dental School in Baltimore, a dental hygiene student practices teeth cleaning during a recent class. (Gabriela Bulisova)
By Melanie D.G. Kaplan
Wednesday, March 14, 2007; 10:35 AM

Even after Allison Small decided to apply to dental hygienist school, she still harbored some serious reservations about the profession.

"I thought I'd be grossed out by looking in people's mouths," says the Springfield resident, 28. "And I hated science."

But despite her hesitation, Small, who was a self-described "Colorado ski bum" with a teaching degree, was drawn to the field. Her mother had worked as a hygienist before Small was born, and her father is an endodontist (think root canals). So, Small took the prerequisites, and is now in her first of two years in dental hygiene school at Northern Virginia Community College. She says the science is hard, but she loves learning about bacteria and disease and understanding how oral health can make a difference.

As for the gross-out factor, working with patients has made that a non-issue. "I saw how people were comforted by a smiling face and a good chairside manner," Small says. "And I realize that I can help them. It's my job to give them the honest truth that you will lose your teeth if you don't [take care of them]. And to say it in a kind, caring manner."

Dental hygienists are licensed oral health professionals who focus on preventing and treating oral diseases and teaching patients good oral hygiene. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it is expected to be one of the fastest-growing occupations through 2014, thanks to increasing demand for dental care and the use of hygienists to perform services once done by dentists. The American Dental Hygienists' Association has accredited nearly 300 schools, where students earn an Associate in Applied Science Degree.

"We're the prevention specialists," says ADHA President Marge Green. "Our growth is exciting, because it means more of us to promote health and to reach communities that are underserved."

Jacquelyn Fried, director of the dental hygiene program at the University of Maryland Dental School, says the demand can also be attributed to current research showing a strong connection between oral health and overall health. Some patients see their dental hygienist more often than their primary physician, so the hygienist can be in a position to notice problems or abnormalities before other health professionals.

Fried says the profession is attractive for many reasons. "It's a flexible career," she says, noting that hygienists don't have the responsibility of owning their own business, as many dentists do. "Also, you're interacting with people and helping them. It's a real giving-back profession." She says dental hygienists, more than 90 percent of whom are female, can earn around $75,000 in and around Washington. Temp agencies pay hygienists about $30 to $40 an hour.

Darlene Peterson, a student in the University of Maryland program, says before she started working with patients in the school's clinic, she was taught to take blood pressure and check the patient's neck, chin and jaw, which is where some cancers start. "At first, it kind of annoyed me," she says. "It was like I was the [nurse]. But now it's starting to sink in -- the connection between oral health and the health of your body."

Peterson, 30, who lives in Laurel, Md., and was working in insurance before she went back to school, says she has six to eight hours of homework and studying a day. On top of that, she works with real patients from the community who go to the school for treatment. To educate others, she had to brush up on her own dental habits -- she went from flossing far too infrequently to doing it every night.

Peterson says in her first semester, she and her classmates had to obtain a certain plaque-free score, which is determined by chewing on a tablet.

Peterson's first patient in the clinic was an 83-year-old man. "I don't know the last time he brushed his teeth," she says. One of her classmate's patients didn't know that dental floss should only be used once, and she had been reusing the same piece of every night.

The profession tends to attract teachers, nurses and individuals who enjoy helping others. Community service components are common in these programs, but at Howard University -- the only school in the District that offers a dental hygiene program -- getting out into the community is especially important.

"We make it a hallmark of our program," says Marie Varley Gillis, director of the dental hygiene department. "Volunteering is a vital part of educating a health care provider. We go to elementary tary schools and do educational skits; we work with HIV-infected patients at Whitman-Walker Clinic and homeless patients at SOME (So Others Might Eat)."

Before entering a dental hygiene program, most students need to complete science prerequisites. Some volunteer in a dental office, get a job as an office receptionist or work as a dental assistant beforehand to get a taste of the work they'd do as a hygienists. Most assistants are still trained on the job, but the Medix School in Towson has an 11-month program that teaches students to work chairside, chart patient records, do X-rays and sterilize instruments. Assistants can earn $11 to $17 an hour.

Herndon's Kathryn Rohr, 25, who has a bachelor's degree in psychology, says once she took an office job with a dentist, she knew she wanted to work in the field. Now she is in her first year at NVCC. "It's the first time I've worked in a job where I feel like I'm making a difference," she says.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company