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Why Wisconsin and the nation have a dental hygienist shortage

Posted at 6:03 AM, Sep 20, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-20 11:38:53-04

MENOMONEE FALLS — As a dental hygienist, there's a lot of flexibility. You can be part-time or full-time, and the pay is nothing to scoff at. Oftentimes, you can make anywhere from $30 to $40 an hour. Based on salary alone, you'd think these jobs would be filling fast. Instead, nationally and here in Wisconsin, there's a shortage of hygienists.

A poll from the American Dental Association's Health Policy Institute reports 8% of dental hygienists left the workforce during COVID-19.

Respondents gave several reasons why, including COVID-19 concerns in a work setting, childcare issues, no longer wanting to work in the profession, and other reasons like retirement.

At Avenue Dental Group in Menomonee Falls, those hygienists at retirement age decided it was time to leave.

"What happens is, once they leave the field, we don't have enough hygienists coming in," said Dr. Eyad Bittar with the dental office.

Dr. Bittar says his staff stepped in and took on more shifts. He stresses hygienists have always been essential, but especially now they are critical to maintaining a high level of care for patients.

"There are a lot of issues that popped up because of COVID-19. Stress and COVID-19 went hand in hand with each other. So, you got more broken teeth, TMJ disorders, headaches, migraines, and they need to be taken care of," Dr. Bittar said.

"I don't think that any of this problem is a lack of interest in the field. I really don't," said Dr. Paula Crum. She's the President of the Wisconsin Dental Association and works as a periodontist in Green Bay.

Dr. Crum explains a big part of the problem is there aren't many dental hygienist programs in the state.

There are 16 technical colleges in Wisconsin. Currently, nine of them have a dental hygiene program: Milwaukee, Madison, Kenosha, Green Bay, Pewaukee, Wausau, Eau Claire, Janesville, and Appleton.

"I live in Washington County. What's there for us? We have Moraine Park which does nursing, but I don't know why they don't open their sectors to dental hygiene," said Leah Bennett, a recent MATC graduate who is now working as a dental hygienist at Avenue Dental Group.

"It's really great for new grads. The shortage is a great opportunity for you to pick the office that fits your needs and you get to kind of shop around," she added.

Dr. Crum is doing what she can. She recently wrote this letter to the President of the Wisconsin Technical College system laying out the hygienist shortage and asking them to get involved.

Dr. Bittar says his office made new hires like Bennett and part-time hygienists went full-time. So his office is in a good spot for now. He knows most dental offices in our state can't say the same.

"I know two or three dentists that have had ads for hygienists for a year, that have not filled those positions," said Dr. Crum.

Until positions are filled, some dentists have had to take on extra duties.

"We've seen more dentists taking on that role and they do a very good job. But, as in any field, you have specialty work," he answered.

"A dentist has a multitude of roles they can take on. A hygienist can focus on the important periodontal work," he added.

"We can't provide the access to care for patients without them," said Dr. Crum.

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