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May 2024
Volume 45, Issue 5

Embracing Hygiene as Its Own Complementary Industry Within Dentistry

Melissa K. Turner, BASDH, RDHEP, EFDA

As Bob Dylan famously sang, "The times, they are a-changin'...." Indeed, much has changed in our personal lives since the start of the pandemic. We now rely on delivery of goods and services more than ever, utilize automation, digitalization, and artificial intelligence (AI) more than we thought possible, and above all else, expect everything in life to be convenient and flexible.

Within the dental industry, it seems as if both dental business owners and clinicians are still attempting to regain footing since the pandemic, unsure of what exactly the future holds. The important thing to note, though, is that even without the pandemic, the dental industry has been and is poised to experience significant and multiple changes simultaneously, some of which will be unprecedented. Today, dentistry is in the midst of seeing these changes take place, and dental professionals are learning how to successfully navigate through them.

A Different-Looking Future?

Among the most notable changes is the movement of millennials into leadership positions. Born between 1981 and 1996, these individuals are becoming the heart of the workforce, and also turning into dental practices' primary patient base.1 How will the tech-savvy millennial mindset, which is drastically different than the generations before, impact the dental workforce and patient services? Also, how will the fact that more women are graduating from dental school than men2 affect an already majority female workforce in the dental profession? And, lastly, with innovation in technology hitting incredible heights, what does this mean for the industry in how dentists practice clinically and structure their businesses? The answers to these questions may be up for debate and difficult to attain, but certainly the dental industry is at a crossroads of innovation and tradition, which is setting the stage for a future that looks quite different than today.

One particular sector of the dental profession has been steadily on the rise for some time and now has its own footing: the dental hygiene industry. And while it may seem strange to categorize dental hygiene as its own industry, over the past decade the dental hygiene profession has been at the forefront of much discussion among dental consumers, manufacturers, legislators, and stakeholders because of one thing: prevention. Manufacturers, third-party payers, and experts both inside and outside of dentistry have been repeatedly declaring that hygiene is the future of dentistry and asking, "How can we support dental hygienists to move the industry forward?"

When observing what's happening outside of the dental industry, it is easy to see how our communities are becoming more prevention-centric. From genetic testing to countless health-based diets and cosmetic-focused trends, the concept of "prevention" clearly is important to and becoming mainstream among the younger generations, and is no doubt here to stay.

So, what does this mean to an industry that has been built on a disease-based model of care and traditionally been profitable by stopping disease processes, managing disease, and repairing the damage done by disease? Is it possible to utilize a prevention-based model of care within dentistry to create successful practices and attract and retain patients? The answer is "yes," and it starts with a mindset change among business owners and clinicians. This mindset change involves rethinking and restructuring dental services and business models to meet the changing needs of patients, consumers, and communities. Embracing the idea that dental hygiene is not just a profession but is now also a complementary industry within dentistry is the first step to understanding what dentistry can look like in the future and to meeting these needs-but it isn't the only thing that is "a-changin.'"

Taking Care to the Patient

More than ever it is vital to make dental services convenient and flexible for patients. Gone are the days of calling patients to remind them of appointments, sending paper statements in the mail, and caring for patients only within the four walls of the office. Now are the days of automated patient reminders, providing patients text-to-pay links, and offering virtual appointments or even taking services to patients at their homes, workplaces, or community centers.

Last summer, Fortune magazine discussed trends within America's biggest healthcare companies and stated, "As the industry embraces what it calls ‘value-based care,' the vision is a patient experience that involves seeing doctors and other providers early and often, and in settings closer to (or sometimes even in) their homes. These low-stress, tech-enabled relationships will provide quick intervention, disease management, and wellness counseling, with the aim of preventing ER visits and hospitalizations."3

Within dentistry's current business models, the dental hygiene department is an ideal place to begin when considering implementation of value-based care, digitalization, automation, virtual appointments, and even mobile care. Tools like radiographic AI, intraoral cameras, handheld x-ray machines, and cloud-based teledental platforms make it easier than ever for hygienists to provide offsite care and still remain interconnected with the brick-and-mortar team. Delivering care to the patient via virtual or mobile means can serve as a practice-growth strategy and has the added benefit of reserving clinical chairtime for complicated procedures that must take place in-office, such as full-mouth restorations, extractions, and implant placements.

Dental practices shifting their mindset to focus their clinical and business models on prevention, convenience, and flexibility for patients also yields the added benefits of naturally attracting and retaining team members. This is critical in light of the staffing shortages practices are currently facing and which are expected to linger well into the future.

Take virtual care, for example. As of 2022 there were 24 million parents who were no longer in the workforce due to inflexibility.4 For a dental practice, adding a virtual arm-which can mean something as simple as utilizing teledentistry appointments for triage, emergencies, oral health education, and even hygiene checks-enables the practice to employ virtual care providers like parents and women in their child-rearing years who may not otherwise have the capability to work traditional dental practice hours. This can also include dentists and other licensed care providers who live remote, or even baby-boomer dentists who find it physically demanding to work in the operatory but would like to still remain active.

Incorporating convenience and flexibility into the mentality of the dental practice also unleashes the potential to improve workplace culture and increase team empowerment, which are two defining values for millennials and those younger. For example, a principal characteristic of Generation Z is that they prioritize flexibility in their careers and may take lesser-paying jobs (or change jobs frequently) to ensure their career remains flexible. Implementing core values, creating growth paths, and utilizing flexible staffing models are all ways dental practices can attract younger generations of dental hygienists.

Focused on Prevention

The times will continue to change in dentistry. For now, however, understanding the important role of the dental hygiene industry in the future of dentistry and in our patients' well-being is one way dental practices can navigate through today's changes. Along with trends like automation, digitalization, convenience, and flexibility, prevention-focused care models with dental hygienists at the helm are leading the way into a bright future for dentistry.

About the Author

Melissa K. Turner, BASDH, RDHEP, EFDA
Chief Hygiene Officer, Cellerant Consulting Group, Washington, D.C.



1. Mitchell A. The rise of the millennial workforce. Wired website. Accessed April 2, 2024.

2. U.S. dental school grads by gender. American Dental Association website.,school%20in%202021%20than%20males. Accessed April 2, 2024.

3. Aspan M, Fry E. Companies like CVS and UnitedHealth are now some of the world’s biggest businesses. Is that healthy for the rest of us? Fortune website. May 24, 2023. Accessed April 2, 2024.

4. Terrazas A. Parents have returned to the workforce, but gains are uneven and challenges persist. Glassdoor website. September 16, 2022. Accessed April 2, 2024. 


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