Dental hygienists help take a bite out of poor oral health

If you want to become a dental hygienist, you live in the right state. Twelve Georgia colleges and universities offer associate degrees and three offer bachelor’s degrees in dental hygiene.

Dental hygiene is a highly competitive and rigorous career path. “It’s competitive to get into our program and it’s harder to get a job in metro Atlanta in this economy, but it’s still the most rewarding work I’ve ever done,” said Cherie Rainwater, department chair of dental hygiene at Georgia Perimeter College.

There are more job opportunities in rural Georgia and other states, as well as a great need in public health, Rainwater said. She’s proud that her program has a 100 pass rate for the state licensure exam and a 100 job placement rate, although recently most of those jobs are part time.

“In the long range, this is a viable, rewarding and much-needed career. As the population ages, there will be more demand for dental hygienists,” she added.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor agrees, predicting a 38 percent increase in job demand from 2010 to 2020.

Each fall, Georgia Perimeter College accepts 25 students into its dental hygiene program. Students start and take five semesters of classes and lab training together, but they can complete biology and chemistry prerequisites and core courses at any time. The estimated cost of tuition, books, uniforms and fees is $10,000 to $11,000.

“People think that a dental hygienist is just about teeth, but the real focus is on oral health. Many diseases show up in the mouth first. Some of the most important work we do is oral cancer screening and patient education. Only about 50 percent of patients with oral cancer survive five years, but if you can detect it early, the outcomes are good,” Rainwater said.

Dental hygienists also clean teeth, apply sealants and fluorides, take and develop dental X-rays, and keep track of patient care and treatment plans.

Not everyone is cut out for the job, Rainwater said.

“You need to like science and really care about patients,” she said. “You also need good kinesthetic [tactile] skills. The hand instruments are very minute, so it takes good hand-eye coordination.”

Students attend classes four days a week full time and also work in a student clinic. They take classes in anatomy and physiology, dental tissues, dental radiology, dental pharmacology, oral pathology and periodontology while learning dental hygiene techniques and instrumentation. For licensure, graduates must pass a seven-hour national exam and a clinical exam with a patient.

“It’s a rigorous program, but our faculty does a lot to help our students get through it, obtain licensure and find jobs,” Rainwater said.

Most graduates work in dental offices and make about $30 an hour.

“The people are the best part of this job,” Rainwater said. “Your practice becomes like a second family and your patients know you and depend on you.”

For information, call 770-274-5130 or go to www.gpc.edu\~gpcdh. For a list of programs in Georgia, go to the Georgia Dental Hygienists’ Association’s website (www.gdha.org).

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