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A dental hygienist shortage has dentist offices struggling to schedule patients

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Across the country, employers are still struggling to fill certain jobs. That is especially true for dentists trying to hire hygienists and other support staff. Meanwhile, many patients are just now returning to the dentist after a long pandemic break, and they're finding it tough to schedule an appointment. Craig LeMoult of member station GBH reports.

TINA WANG: OK, just going to feel a little pressure here.

CRAIG LEMOULT, BYLINE: Dr. Tina Wang scrapes the plaque from a patient's teeth.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCRAPING ON TEETH)

LEMOULT: And then, after a rinse, it's time to polish.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLISHING TEETH)

LEMOULT: Usually, a dental hygienist does the cleanings here. But a full-time hygienist in this office moved away in January. And Wang says she hasn't been able to fully staff back up since then.

WANG: So what's been happening is the doctors - myself included - have been doing the cleanings just to be able to take care of everybody.

LEMOULT: And that means less time for her and the other dentists in her practice to see other patients. Wang says they've been posting the position on job sites and asking colleagues, hygienist schools and vendors if they know anyone qualified who's looking for a job. She describes the search as emotional.

WANG: It's emotional because my team that's here are facing challenges and struggles, and it's a day-to-day grind for them. And I want to help them.

LEMOULT: A couple of months ago, Wang says she was thrilled to finally hire a new hygienist.

WANG: But the next day, she said she got another good offer. So it was between the two of us. And she took another job.

LEMOULT: It's a competitive market right now. A poll last month by the American Dental Association shows nearly 40% of dentists are trying to recruit hygienists. Of those, 95% say it's been extremely or very difficult to hire someone. In the 20 largest U.S. cities, the ADA's polling says only half of hygienist positions are reported as filled.

RACHEL MORRISSEY: We just hear over and over again, what can we do to get more dental hygienists?

LEMOULT: That's Rachel Morrissey, a senior research analyst at the American Dental Association. Their monthly poll of private dental practices shows dental assistants are in high demand, too. And Morrissey says dentists are trying to sweeten the pot to attract candidates.

MORRISSEY: More than 80% of dentists that are recruiting dental hygienists are raising salaries. They're also offering more flexible working hours.

LEMOULT: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the average dental hygienist salary was just under $78,000 last year, or more than $37 an hour. Morrissey was a co-author of a study last year that estimated 8% of dental hygienists left the workforce in 2020. A year later, some had returned. But hygienist Sarah Crow, who's the president of the Massachusetts Dental Hygienist Association, says many of her older colleagues aren't coming back.

SARAH CROW: If there was a question in your mind, pre-pandemic, whether or not you were ready to retire or you were thinking about, you know, just not practicing clinically anymore, the pandemic made up your mind. And so there were a lot of hygienists in that boat.

LEMOULT: Crow says the pandemic pushed people out of the field for all kinds of reasons, including childcare challenges and personal health concerns in a job that requires close contact. But Dr. JoAnn Gurenlian of the American Dental Hygienist Association says, even before the pandemic, hygienists reported growing dissatisfaction.

JOANN GURENLIAN: There was concern about lack of respect in their workplace setting. They were having to clock out if a patient canceled their appointment. They felt that they just weren't appreciated, and there were some that were thinking maybe it was time for them to leave.

LEMOULT: But now, for many dental hygienists and assistants, staffing shortages could bring greater appreciation from their employers - and a boost in pay and benefits to go along with that. For NPR News, I'm Craig LeMoult in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Craig produces sound-rich features and breaking news coverage for WGBH News in Boston. His features have run nationally on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on PRI's The World and Marketplace. Craig has won a number of national and regional awards for his reporting, including two national Edward R. Murrow awards in 2015, the national Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi award feature reporting in 2011, first place awards in 2012 and 2009 from the national Public Radio News Directors Inc. and second place in 2007 from the national Society of Environmental Journalists. Craig is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Tufts University.