Fair and Balanced Wages for the "Thriving" Professional

A number of valid reasons exist on why dental hygienists need to be paid wages that enable them to thrive and not just survive.

Jan 21st, 2010

Fair and Balanced Wages for the Thriving Professional

By Rebecca Claunch, RDH

I recently read an article concerning what makes dental hygienists thrive. Thriving in the practice of dental hygiene comes from the ability to provide ethical, successful high-level care for patients. It has been said that, "Surviving is important but thriving is impressive." Let us take a realistic look at thriving in the working world of dental hygiene.

When professional registered dental hygienists produce monetary benefits for a dental practice, they deserve a reasonable percentage of those profits.
Hygienists are commonly left working for an hourly amount of pay that is frequently far below the revenue many produce. Hygienists do realize the practice owner absolutely has an investment in the tangible assets of a dental office along with liability in the practice of dentistry; however, that does not negate equitable pay for the professional hygienist who is a financial asset, generating immense amounts of income for the dental practice. Restorative, operative, periodontal, preventive and routine treatments come directly from the hygiene chair.

Hygienists must step up and be counted as the professional revenue producers they are in dentistry! They must learn how to track production daily and gain knowledge of the statistics on the financial enhancement provided to dental practices by hygienists. It is essential to become familiar with these facts in determining equitable compensation. Leaving money on the table for the practice to absorb as the dental hygienist works diligently and single-handedly for an hourly fee is quickly becoming unacceptable.

Providing quadrant after quadrant of periodontal treatment (including local anesthesia services) for the same hourly wage paid for prophylaxis patients is not equitable pay. Hygienists must be aware of fair and adequate wages based on the treatment rendered. Dental hygienists independently provide a variety of services and treatments in the dental environment on a constant and regular basis. They can be the foundation for "building a practice" providing ongoing services and therefore a plethora of clients.

In dentistry, an overwhelming array of treatments, products, and new information are ongoing and endless. Education, training, and the continued broadening of skills are requirements to fulfill the practice of dental hygiene. A dental hygienist would not be granted a license if lacking the skills, knowledge, and abilities required to provide varied professional services to the public. A licensed hygienist is subject to state dental board statutes, rules, regulations, and laws.

The ever-pressing need to acquire new skills, knowledge, licensing, and certificates in order to provide many procedures can be a tremendous objective for hygienists to accomplish. Fair monetary compensation ought to reflect the financial gain afforded to the dental practice by dental hygiene services. Operative dentistry arising out of a dental hygiene screening (exam) is noteworthy, offering untold monetary gains to practices. An exam by hygienists has become a foul word but let us face the fact that hygienists provide exams daily.

Time slots allocated for each hygiene appointment are consumed with a list of duties the hygienist performs before ever putting "hand to scaler."

Screening a patient's health history (including all medications and conditions), treatment history, restorative services needed, the condition of restorative dentistry in place, blood pressure, X-rays, periodontal status, and oral cancer status are indeed exams. Specific treatment recommendations, referrals, consultation with dentists and patients point to the fact that an exam has taken place by the hygienist. The examination by the hygienist has merit and should be credited as a percentage toward hygiene production, assuring an accurate measure of the hygienist's earning power in the dental practice.

Part-time workers are abundant within the dental hygiene profession. Part-time staff may not afford continuity, or a model for dependable protocol. Utilizing part-time staff does not require employers to offer benefits. This is perhaps due to the assumption that spouses provide these benefits, that part-time hygienists are not career-minded or has just become the standard financial practice in dentistry.

When hygienists come to the end of their careers, they have spent countless hours in service to patients and practices and are ultimately left with no tangible benefits. Living with lesser means of support, without retirement benefits, they must be prepared to start over. Hygienists are not encouraged to reflect or plan toward the time when working as a traditional chair-side professional is no longer possible.

Start now to assure that the wages paid for professional dental hygiene services reflect the education, skill, time and tenacity required to provide those services. Retirement, health/disability/life insurance and 401k plans should be offered to dental staff through professional associations. As health care professionals we must work toward that outcome. Whoever said staff is not interested in paying into these plans may not have an understanding of the need for these benefits.

Hygienists are by design a profit center in dental practices, as well as the nurturers and watch dogs of the dental environment. Be aware of just how much a registered dental hygienist can bring to the dental practice in knowledge, skill, loyalty, and monetary benefits. Hygienists should begin to identify the dollar amount produced daily in hygiene and assess the value of those services.

Reaching toward financial stability through just and fair compensation is one of the many reasons hygienists pursue professional credentials required to practice in this chosen career. While hygienists are not asking to take advantage of private practices, they are asking to be paid on the basis of what they provide financially to the dental practice they serve. Hygienists are generally paid only when "on the job" and are often asked to take time off without pay.

Hygienists are "working" when cleaning, sharpening, sterilizing and setting up instruments, emptying trash and disinfecting operatories, updating clinical notes and reviewing patient charts, making phone contacts, and taking stock of products on hand. These duties are numerous and worthy.

Many hygienists are the number one sales person in the office, selling products to patients without any financial reward. This staff member who is the greatest producer of independent revenue is sacrificed the minute "things slow down." Astounding!

Diverse methods for allotting compensation abound and should be investigated. Percentages and per service fees or a combination of disbursement types (including a base wage) are all acceptable means of remuneration to the professional. A quick route toward career burnout is the over worked hygienist without acceptable compensation.

Dentists and hygienists must recognize and value the mutual benefits derived from combined efforts in a successful working relationship! What is the value of professional dental hygiene services? Decide what is appropriate individually and be willing to arrange wages accordingly. Hygienists must rise to the professional level they have achieved, know their value and work toward well-deserved compensation.

Rebecca Claunch, RDH, graduated from University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, School of Dentistry, Division of Dental Hygiene in 1982. Ms. Claunch continues her education through UMKC School of Dentistry, Division of Dental Hygiene, with plans to pursue a Masters Degree. She is an advocate for distance education and degree completion. Email comments to: rclaunch@aol.com. Ms. Claunch provides consulting services: Opportunity through Observation.

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