Laurel Berard spends her days cleaning teeth, treating gum disease and educating people about good oral-health practices.
She also reclines patients back in their chairs, directs an overhead light into their mouths and examines their teeth with her tools.
However, Berard isn’t a dentist. Her duties belong to the position of a dental hygienist, specialists who have one central goal — keeping their patients’ mouths healthy.
“The main thing we do is educate patients on prevention of oral disease, that being periodontal disease, cavities, oral cancer, those sorts of things,” Berard says. “Along with that, we provide a billable service of a cleaning.”
You probably see the hygienist more than you see me. They’re really the backbone of the practice.
Mathew Dorsch, Bellingham dentist
While some people might only think about their dentists when they go in for a regular visit, Dr. Mathew Dorsch – the dentist at the Bellingham office where Berard works – says hygienists typically have the most face-to-face interaction with patients.
“You probably see the hygienist more than you see me,” he says. “They’re really the backbone of the practice.”
Dorsch says some of his patients have connections with his hygienists that go back decades, and they keep coming back because of those ties.
Berard’s aunt is one of those hygienists, having been with Dorsch’s practice for more than 25 years. Health care runs in Berard’s family, a reason she pursued a career in dental hygiene.
Dental hygiene training
Berard attended Lake Washington Institute of Technology in Kirkland for dental hygiene school, one of several institutions in the state that offers a program geared toward the profession. Bellingham Technical College also offers a two-year program.
“It’s pretty intensive,” says Christine Harwood, the program’s director at BTC. “Students learn the basics of how to do dental hygiene, how to clean teeth, work all the instruments and all the equipment.”
They also learn about infection control procedures, patient management, and how to take X-rays, among many other tasks, she says.
Students in BTC’s program enter with at least two years of college before they begin their specialized training, with about 160 hours each in the classroom and in hands-on training.
Dorsch says the training hygienists receive is crucial to them being able to carry out their jobs.
“Some people don’t realize that hygienists, at least in the state of Washington, can administer anesthetics,” he says. “Some people may think that they just scrape your teeth.”
‘People skills’ valuable
Some of the qualifications Dorsch looks for when hiring hygienists aren’t necessarily learned through textbooks and training. He says interpersonal skills are also important.
“We know that some people have apprehension about coming to the dentist, and so if the hygienist is warm and caring, and really makes that patient feel comfortable, that’s a huge plus,” Dorsch says.
Berard says interacting with patients is one of her favorite parts of the job.
“I get to see eight patients a day, usually, and every patient wants and needs something different from me,” she says. “I get to talk to a lot of different people and see their perspectives on life.”
Berard says other positives of her job include a flexible schedule, and the gratification of seeing the good results of her work reflected in patients’ teeth.
Some of the equipment has been designed to be more ergonomic, so hopefully the next generation of hygienists will have less neck and back problems than we’ve had in the past.
stine Harwood, Bellingham Technical College
There are some drawbacks, Berard says. Reaching around a patient and into the corners of their mouth can cause back pain and carpal tunnel syndrome, so not many hygienists stay with the profession past middle-age, she says.
Harwood agrees, saying hygienists suffer from muscle pain due to the demands of their job, such as sitting for an extended period.
“It’s a tougher job than you think,” she says. “Some of the equipment has been designed to be more ergonomic, so hopefully the next generation of hygienists will have less neck and back problems than we’ve had in the past.”
Equipment designed to optimize comfort for hygienists is just one of the changes Harwood has seen over the years. Another is computerized charting and scheduling.
Berard has seen technology change in her six years as a hygienist, including digital X-ray technology, which produces better images of teeth while using less radiation than film X-rays.
Good pay, high demand
Harwood says almost all dental hygiene schools in the state have competition for admission. At BTC, just 10 students are accepted every other year, with nearly all of them women.
“We do have the odd male student, and we’d love to see more men in the profession,” she says.
It’s a good profession, she says, with starting pay of about $40 an hour, and a healthy demand for workers.
For people interested in the field, Berard recommends volunteering and spending as much time as possible in dental offices.
“A lot of people who want to go into dental hygiene don’t know what it’s like,” she says. “Even people I went to school with hadn’t spent that much time in a dental office.”