Greg Alexander

Opportunities abound in the dental field

Baltimore Sun, October 2004

There are several professions in health care – nursing in particular – whose staffing shortages have made their way into newspaper headlines and on television news broadcasts. As critical as these shortages are, their prominence in the media has possibly overshadowed other fields that face similar crucial shortages in the workforce. The dental field, for example, faces critical shortages in many areas, so for those looking for a new career with flexible schedules, good pay and opportunities for advancement, look no further than your family dentist office.

“There’s a lack of awareness of the dental hygienist shortage; in fact, there’s a lack of awareness of the profession itself,” says Sheryl Syme, associate professor in the dental hygiene program at the University of Maryland Dental School. “For those individuals thinking of a career in health care, dental hygiene is a great choice.” “There’s a national shortage, and an especially strong one in Maryland,” adds Jackie Fried, dental hygiene program director at the University of Maryland Dental School. “Our students get placed at a 100 percent rate. You can pick your practice and setting.”

Although many dental hygienists hold an associate’s degree, Syme and Fried both advocate for the completion of a bachelor of science degree in dental hygiene. The University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) has the only bachelor’s program in the state, as well as the only master’s program in Maryland. “Getting your bachelor’s degree opens up a lot of other opportunities in the field,” says Syme. In addition to the traditional bachelor’s degree program, UMB also offers a degree completion program for those who hold an associate’s degree and want to obtain a bachelor’s degree.

While most people are familiar with some of the traditional roles of the dental hygienist from bi-annual visits to the dentist over the years – removing soft and hard deposits from teeth, removing plaque, taking X-rays, applying fluoride, cleaning teeth and stressing the importance of flossing – there are many other roles that are crucial to the patient’s oral – and overall – health.

“Along with the dentist, the dental hygienist is an educator and therapist. We are accessing people’s overall health, not just their oral health,” says Fried. “Most oral health problems are preventable, and some are life-threatening.” Fried notes that dental hygienists may detect life-threatening oral lesions, and many participate in tobacco prevention and cessation programs for their patients’ health.

Syme says that many dental hygienists stay in the same setting – mostly in private dental practices – due to the relationships they build with their patients. “Every six months for a lifetime, you get to see the same patients and watch them grow up. I’ve been invited to patients’ weddings and childbirths,” says Syme, who has worked for 16 years at a private practice on Saturdays in addition to her duties at UMB. Many dental hygienists also work in specialty offices, such as pediatrics and periodontics.

Besides working in a private practice, Syme says that the bachelor’s degree completion presents other opportunities, such as running pharmaceutical trials, sales and marketing for dental product manufacturers, coordinating research studies and public health dental hygiene. “There are an abundance of community health centers in both urban and rural areas of Maryland, and there are many opportunities in that area,” says Syme.

The master’s degree, Syme and Fried say, leads to other career opportunities, including the role of dental hygiene educator. “There’s a shortage for educators nationally,” says Fried. “Besides teaching, you can also move into administrative roles,” adds Syme, who notes that UMB has only one of 12 master’s programs in the country.

Dental hygienists can find both part-time and full-time jobs in private practices, and Fried notes that many dentists have multiple offices, which can lead to a variety of patient interaction, as does working in a specialist setting. Dental hygienists must be licensed in Maryland, which requires passing a written and clinical exam. Syme notes that some hygienists have landed first-time jobs ranging from $30 to $35 per hour. For more information on UMB’s program, check out

In addition to dental hygienists, opportunities abound for another crucial part of the dental team – dental assistants. “A dentist cannot function without a great team, and the dental assistant is an important part of that team,” says Susan Carter, program specialist for the dental assistant program at the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC). “It’s a growing profession, but it needs to be recognized as a profession,” says Carter, who notes a lack of awareness in the general public of the role of the dental assistant.

Carter says that the dental assistant performs such duties as retracting tissues and providing suction during treatment, which makes the dentist’s job easier and makes it more comfortable for the patient. Dental assistants also prepare rooms for treatments, complete charts, help the office adhere to OSHA regulations, order supplies, take X-rays and maintain equipment. “There is also about 30 other duties that dental assistants can perform as long as the dentist is in the room, such as taking impressions and making a crown,” says Carter.

Carter says that the program at CCBC is part of the continuing education curriculum and involves three separate courses: basic training, oral radiography and a clinical externship. “We prepare the students for job readiness as a dental assistant and prepare them to sit for the state Radiation Health and Safety Examination,” says Carter, who adds that Maryland requires licensure for work involving X-rays and expanded duties.

“We also offer continuing education courses for those already in the field to expand skill sets and allow them to work in different settings.” Carter notes that Maryland requires the completion of continuing education courses for dental assistants who want to work in an environment involving expanded duties in general dentistry, orthodontics and oral surgery, for example. She says that many dental assistants work during the day and take classes at night to be able to increase duties and salaries. One orthodontist, in fact, is sending his entire staff to CCBC for a 35-hour course so that they can all sit for the orthodontic assistant exam.

Additionally, there is a national dental assistant certification exam, which requires two years of work experience before one can sit for it. Carter notes that dental assistants typically work in a private practice setting, and full-time and part-time jobs are available. She says that the field is mostly comprised of women, with many working mothers employed as dental assistants.

For more information on CCBC’s program, check out the continuing education site,

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