Dental assistants, hygienists in demand

Melissa Serwa will be the first one to tell you that for years she was afraid of going to the dentist. So she did the only thing she could. She enrolled in a dental assistant program at Pima Medical Institute.

Now the 27-year-old can say, unequivocally, that her fears have melted away, that she’s in a profession that fits her like a perfectly molded crown around a once-chipped tooth.

“It’s a good choice that I made because I love it, I love my job,” said Serwa, who graduated from the program two years ago and now is employed with Suarez Dental in northwest Las Vegas.

Serwa, who used to work in retail at various fabric stores and also held a weekend job at a flower shop, said she wanted to find something more stable and was tired of working holidays. But it turns out what she enjoys most about her new career is helping people, whether they are in pain, fearful of being in the dental chair or even embarrassed about the condition of their teeth.

She has soothed the fears of children and adults alike, and remembers one particular woman in her 40s who hadn’t been to the dentist for four years because she was so afraid of getting any work done.

“So she was very happy for me being patient with her – and being her counselor,” said Serwa, chuckling at her role as confidant. “You have to be able to calm people down and make them feel comfortable.”

According to national statistics, the skills of someone like Serwa will be increasingly in demand during the next several years. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook for 2008-2018 notes that employment among dental assistants is expected to grow by 36 percent during the 10-year period “which is much faster than the average for all occupations,” according to the report. The same is true for dental hygienists.

The median annual salary for a dental assistant was $32,380 in 2008, according to the BLS, and $66,570 for a dental hygienist.

Both occupations are expected to be among the fastest growing in the country, with the job total for dental assistants expected to rise from 295,300 in 2008 to approximately 400,900 in 2018. The number of dental hygienist jobs will go from approximately 174,100 to somewhere near 237,000, according to the BLS.

The reasons cited by the report include population growth and the simple fact that the different generations, including the vast baby boomer population, are taking better preventative care of their teeth so the demand for dental services is going to rise. The report also explains that older dentists who were less likely to hire dental assistants will be retiring, and a new generation of dentists more likely to hire dental assistants and hygienists will be taking their place.

“As dentists’ workloads increase, they are expected to hire more assistants to perform routine tasks, so that they may devote their own time to more complex procedures,” the report states.

Local dental assistant schools, in fact, have noticed a rise in demand for their graduates after a period of stagnation because of the recession.

In 2006, dentists Jason Downey and Blair Hale opened the Southern Nevada Academy of Dental Assisting because, at the time, there was a shortage of trained dental assistants. It was because of large part to the significant number of dentists opening practices in the valley beginning in the early 2000s, Downey said.

During the past year, however, they put their classes on hiatus because of the recession and a noticeable drop in the number of patients seeking care. But that has started to change. There has been an increase in the number of dentists advertising for dental assistants and the business at their own office has begun to turn the corner, Downey said.

As a result, they are restarting the program, which has classes on Saturdays at their dental practice at 5660 W. Flamingo Road.

“I tend to be more optimistic than some people. Just noticing in the last few months, noticing more ads for people hiring and seeing our business has picked up a little bit from where it had gone down to,” said Downey, who is the academy’s president.

Carissa Chambers handed out her resume to about 15 dental offices when she was a student at the Academy of Dental Careers ready to take her externship, basically an on-site training to be completed before graduation. She received five calls in one day from different offices interested in having her as a trainee, so she got to “pick and choose,” she said.

Chambers, who is 21 and a mother, was hired at the same dental office as a part-time dental assistant after completing her externship.

“I’m pretty proud of myself. I feel like I’ve accomplished something good, especially for my daughter,” Chambers said. “It’s a career that definitely will always be in demand and you can grow with it, the more experience you have the higher income you have. And it’ll take you different places. I really want to learn the administrative part of it, too.”

Tina Yu, director of the Academy of Dental Careers, located at 9500 W. Flamingo Road, noted that dentists are calling the school looking for trained dental assistants and some students are getting job placements even before they graduate.

The school’s dental assisting program lasts three months, and classes are offered in the morning and at night to offer flexibility for students who are working full-time, Yu said. In addition to classwork and hands-on clinical work there is a 100-hour externship in a dental office that has to be fulfilled up to six months from when the program is started, she said.

“The majority of the program is hands-on and we go through what we call a clinical rotation and then we’ll do every procedure, what they would do in the general dental office. … And then the major parts of it would be doing the dental radiology, getting the chance to where they can take diagnostic quality X-rays and then doing all the chair-side assisting so mainly just knowing the procedure and what order to pass the instruments.”

In terms of the duties of a dental assistant, many often confuse them with that of a dental hygienist. But the key word is “assistant.” They help the dentist by taking X-rays, sterilizing equipment, entering patient information into software programs such as Dentrix, and handing instruments to dentists during procedures, according to school administrators.

They also can have expanded duties such as making models of teeth, fabricating temporary crowns and placing dental sealants. In fact, the duties can often depend on the needs of the individual dentist.

“I don’t think I could do my job without a good dental assistant,” Downey said. “They do so much to make my life easier, but maybe even more important than that is they make the patient feel comfortable. A good dental assistant is a good communicator with the patient and they can talk (to the patient) and comfort … so that they’re OK with everything that we’re doing.”

And then there’s the education of patients.

“Dentists tend to talk in dental terms more than we should. We get up and walk out and the patient will turn to our assistant, ‘Now what did he just say?’ So they do a lot to just kind of smooth things over and help the patients understand what’s going on.”

At Pima Medical Institute, every student entering the approximately seven-month program must first take general courses in anatomy, physiology and medical terminology, and computer and math basics. The core classes include dental anatomy and pathology, dental pharmacology and the fundamentals of dentistry.

The best dental assistants often are those who are adaptable and willing to learn since the requirements of dentists can vary from office to office, according to Fred Dator, an instructor at Pima. Other qualities include good organizational skills and the ability and desire to communicate with several patients every day.

Dator notes that there are opportunities for dental assistants with experience to advance into supervisory positions such as clinical coordinators and lead assistants. Some of the larger dental practices and corporate dental businesses also have opportunities to move into administrative positions.

“(Dentists) are really looking for someone that’s highly competent in the technical skills that also has the ability to service their patients, to put them at ease, to provide good customer service,” said Sam Gentile, campus director for Pima Medical Institute. “They really want the whole package. It’s very important to them. And, of course, longevity. They’re really looking for stability within the office.”

While the assistants are a dentist’s second set of hands, hygienists are essentially the second set of eyes, noted Shari Peterson, program director of the College of Southern Nevada dental hygiene program, which is accredited by the American Dental Association.

“We’re kind of that triage, the first defense in keeping oral health,” Peterson said.

The dental hygienist is required to have more education than a dental assistant, be licensed by the state and is solely involved in the preventative aspect of dental care, Peterson said. They work more independently than dental assistants and are the ones who examine the teeth and gums to look for signs of disease, remove deposits from teeth, administer fluoride treatments, administer anesthesia and educate patients on preventative care.

They even do assessments of the head and neck to look for signs of oral cancer and provide nutritional counseling, she said.

In Southern Nevada, the only degree program for dental hygienists is at the College of Southern Nevada which accepts only 20 students every academic year. In order to apply to the school, students have to meet certain requirements such as finishing their general education classes, and taking what is called the Test of Essential Academic Skills exam, as well as spacial and dexterity tests.

While it is an associate degree it requires approximately two years of college work and another two years of dental hygienist training, Peterson said.

The school also has an online dental hygiene baccalaureate degree which is useful for those who want to specialize in public health, for example, or teach. And those who want to see if the career is a good fit can take an introduction to dental hygiene class, which is open to all enrolled CSN students, Peterson said.

The current need for dental hygienists in Southern Nevada is not what it is for dental assistants. Peterson, who noted that CSN also has a dental assisting program, estimates that it is taking her graduates about nine months to a year to find employment because of the economy. But there are other opportunities, including a significant shortage of dental hygiene instructors throughout the country, she said.

Andi Irons, executive director of the Nevada Hygienists’ Association, agrees that people should not be discouraged by the current job climate and believes the role of the dental hygienist will continue to expand. She points to the need for care in rural, underserved areas and the fact that the number of dentists who are retiring is outpacing the number of dental school graduates.

In fact, there is a model being developed by the American Dental Hygienists’ Association for the job of dental hygiene practitioner which would be the equivalent in oral health of a nurse practitioner in the medical field.

“Due to many dental offices closing in the Las Vegas Valley in the past couple of years, dental hygiene jobs have diminished. However, I would not let that deter me from a career in dental hygiene since there are so many more aspects of serving the public than the traditional dental office,” she stated in an email.

“There are so many other opportunities open to dental hygienists such as working in the public health sector, academia, consulting, corporate environment, entrepreneurship, hospital, government and not-for-profit. These are just a few examples of other areas outside the traditional dental office which a dental hygienist can put his/her education to work.”

The work of becoming a dental hygienist is “rigorous,” she added, but those who want to make a difference “are so much richer for the education and experience of changing people one smile at a time.”

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