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Becoming a permanent temporary dental hygienist

Aug. 31, 2017
This RDH loved her work routine for 25 years. Now, a short time later, she's happily working as a temporary dental hygienist. What happened? Read about it here, and get several tips if this path is calling to you.  

HAVE YOU EVER CONSIDERED DOING TEMPORARY HYGIENE? How about doing it exclusively? I can say that, up until about a year ago, being a temporary never entered my mind. In fact, I'm pretty sure I would have been voted by my co-workers as the least likely hygienist to consider this option.

I have always felt secure with routine. For over 25 years, I worked for one dentist, worked out of one room (unless forced to vacate it by an equipment problem), and largely flowed through the same routine, day after day.

Last year, a major change rocked my even-keeled world—the dentist I worked for retired. Suddenly I was forced to not only work with a new employer, but also to wrap my head around using different products. I knew it was just a matter of time until I would be using new equipment. It was almost like I was temping in the office I had been at home in for decades. That's when I decided I may as well embrace being an interim hygienist for other offices. I quit my regular job and did just that!

During the time I've been filling in for area dental hygienists, I've found that there is a lot of curiosity about what I'm doing. I've fielded questions from other hygienists, dentists, and even patients. Maybe you've given this career path some thought, but are not sure about the particulars.

I've compiled some advice for those of you considering it:

Put your name out there. Most offices try to keep a database of hygienists they can call when their usual RDH is on vacation or medical leave, or has a last-minute illness. I personally delivered flyers to all the dental offices in my town and all the communities bordering it. I probably gave out 50 of them. I dated them so that the office would know when I had stopped by if they found my flyer under paperwork years down the road.

Being a temporary hygienist is basically being on call. Make sure you have a reliable cell phone listed so that you can respond when at home or away. Working in this capacity allows a lot of flexibility, which can be nice if you have other commitments. Just know that if you reject call after call from an office, they will eventually drop you from their list. If you can only work specific days, state this on your flyer so that they don't call you for days you are unavailable. It is imperative to keep a detailed calendar. I have a wall calendar at home, but found I have to have one on my phone so I can respond on the spot.

Be prepared to learn new ways of doing things. Your job as a substitute is to try to work as seamlessly as possible for the office that needs you. You may see things that you feel could be done better, but these offices are not bringing you in as a consultant. Unless you feel that there is a serious risk involved, conform to the office's ways. This also goes when advising patients. I've encountered questions from patients regarding subjective opinions. For instance, I've been asked about amalgams vs. composites. If there is any question in my mind as to the office's stance on the issue, I tell the patient that we'll discuss his or her concerns when the dentist comes in.

Speaking of new ways, I have had to learn how to use a variety of equipment I was unfamiliar with, including digital x-rays and setting up recall appointments on my in-room computer. You will soon realize that each office has quirks that need to be worked around. There's the temperamental chair or the handpiece that requires you to stand up momentarily after a few patients. It is helpful to have a notebook where you can write particulars for each job, including the names of the employees and their positions. You can also use your book to record your log-in password, if the office gives you one.

Don't bad-mouth other offices, no matter what you've seen. The staff you are sharing with may be concerned that you will degrade their office to others too. I have subbed in about a dozen offices in less than a year. No office is perfect. Neither are you. Make the best of each office and if the problems are too great, don't accept any more work at the undesirables.

Make sure you keep track of your work income and expenses for tax purposes. I use a computer program to record my earnings as a nonemployee. I have a separate bank account to save approximately 25% of my earnings from offices where I work as an independent contractor to pay the taxes that I will owe. When you are self-employed, you have to pay some payroll taxes doubly (as an employer and an employee). This is a big chunk, so I try to encourage offices to make me an employee and most have given me that honor.

The one question that I'm probably asked most frequently is “Wouldn't you rather just find an office you can work at permanently?” The easy answer would be yes! I admit that I never feel like I can count on a day off because I know a call could come in at any time. I also greatly miss the bond I had with my long-term patients. However, the offices I have worked with are very accommodating to me and express their appreciation of my work more than I ever had with a standard job. There is a boost to my self-esteem whenever I get a repeat call. You too may find that becoming a temporary hygienist will work best for you!

Editor's note: This article first appeared in RDH eVillage. Click here to subscribe.

Heidi Tack, RDH, has worked in the dental field for 32 years (hygiene for 29 of those). She has been married for 30 years to Rick, who retired from dentistry in April 2016. They have two adult children. Besides dental hygiene, Heidi enjoys Bible study, traveling to national parks, and bicycling on rail trails. She recently started a blog directed particularly to the older population. You can find it at

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