Dental Hygienist Shaun Howe talks about his career.  He and his website can be found here.  Also follow along on his Twitter feed found in the sidebar of this interview.  

What do you do for a living?

I am a Dental Hygienist working full time but have many other work related interests too.

How would you describe what you do?

A Dental Hygienist is an integral part of the dental team helping patients achieve better oral hygiene through instruction and helping people with professional removal of deposits on teeth that may cause or be causing dental disease.

What does your work entail?

I see somewhere in the region of 100 patients a week. The vast majority just require a scale and polish to remove deposits from the teeth and help maintain healthy gums and teeth. I also treat gum diseases when  they are found and diagnosed by carrying out more complex treatments but also I spend time either teaching how to use various oral health aids to improve their own dental health.

What’s a typical work week like?

I am quite unusual insomuch that I work long hours. I work Monday to Friday and most Saturdays but I enjoy my work so it is no problem. One week may be very different from the last due to the very nature of the patients I see. I also work in two different surgeries in different places so this gives me some variety as they are two very different dental practices (dental offices in the US).

How did you get started?

I was actually in the British Army. I started life as an infantry soldier but transferred to the Royal Army Dental Corps and during my time as a dental assistant I was lucky enough to be recognised as being academically and professionally proficient enough to train as a Dental Hygienist. I left the Army in 1999.

What do you like about what you do?

Everything; I like meeting the people that I help and also the knowledge that I have helped them in my own way. It is sometimes the small things that can make a real difference to people’s lives but also building relationships with my patients is also very rewarding. I like the other aspects of my work that have come along as my career has developed. I now write for several publications and do some professional speaking that means I get to share my knowledge and experience with colleagues. I am also privileged to work in two fantastic dental teams that make work so enjoyable.

What do you dislike?

Like any job, there are some drawbacks. The one person that can make your life a little unpleasant is the patient. They may be somewhat scared or nervous of the treatments and this can upset me a little. These patients take special management but if I can win their trust then we can usually overcome this together.

How do you make money/or how are you compensated?

I am very lucky and I am employed which in the UK means my taxes are worked out by my employers and paid directly from my salary. Many choose to be “self-employed” and submit their own tax returns and this suits many.

How much money do you make as a Registered Dental Hygienist?

This varies for everyone in the profession and many earn less than I do and many earn much more than I do. I personally earn around £45-50,000 ($60-70k) a year but this takes into account the money I earn working, speaking and writing. It has to be remembered that the writing and speaking that I do only contributes a small percentage of my earnings.

How much money do Registered Dental Hygienists make starting out?

Here in the UK again this figure can vary quite widely and tends to be dictated by what an individual can negotiate. There has been much discussion about this in the UK recently as many are qualifying and demanding similar kind of rates as someone like myself. Our profession takes years of experience to get right and leaving school is just the start of a lifelong journey. Expect £25-£30k starting out ($30-$40k) here in the UK. It is apparent that salaries/earnings vary across the world and the USA and indeed Canada are no exception where it will vary in the cities from those in rural areas.

What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?

Here in the UK, you are now looking at needing at least two A levels. There is no High School Diploma in the UK and you gain Certificates of Secondary Education in various subjects and then go to sixth form or college to gain the A Levels. There are no pre-set requirements for these A Levels but English and a Science are preferable. I would advise any potential Dental Hygienist to consider studying Maths, English and preferably Human Biology at higher level to make your studies easier.

What is most challenging about what you do?

There are many challenges that I face on a daily basis and this is usually from the patients. Dealing with people in a dental surgery setting can be very challenging due to nerves and fear or just a dislike of what we do. Plus for some the financial burden is also difficult; It can be very frustrating when a patient fails to heed the advice you have given them and yet you know they are progressing with disease that could perhaps be stalled.  There are challenges that come from within the profession too as it maybe that you disagree with the Dentists diagnosis or even of the need for treatment. You learn, over time, to face these challenges head on and experience will teach you many things. I am now at an age where generational shift means that some of the dentists I work for are much younger than I am. This requires and understanding of their mentality and moral approach that may differ from my own.

What is most rewarding?

The single most rewarding aspect is knowing that I have helped improve a patients oral health and this goes nowadays with the knowledge that there systemic (general) health has more than likely improved. I personally gain satisfaction from working in great dental teams that strive to improve health. There is the obvious financial reward but this should be secondary to any health worker.

What advice would you offer someone considering this career?

Be sure that this is what you want to do. It is not for everyone and sometimes people train but realise too late that it was not what they expected. If you can, gain experience as a dental nurse and then get to work alongside a Dental Hygienist to be really sure it is what you want to do.

How much time off do you get/take?

I am very unusual and I am employed and get 4 weeks paid time off a year. On top of this I have negotiated up to six weeks of unpaid leave to allow me to work for various organisations outside of my usual work. This includes writing, lecturing (usually to other dental hygienists) and assisting other dental professionals when they are potentially in trouble.

What is a common misconception people have about what you do?

Haha, there are many and I am sure anyone reading this can think of a few. In the UK there is a lack of education of patients regarding our role in the team and some think of us as dental beauticians rather than clinicians treating disease. There is also the misconception that we are all sadists because what we do is uncomfortable but this is so far from the truth. We can and do use pain relief when necessary but this can be compounded when a patient has a fear of needles.

What are your goals/dreams for the future?

I’m not really sure. I have some aspirations to work for various companies but this may never become a reality. I just take each day/week/month/year as it comes but I have been very lucky to have been given various opportunities to allow me to digress from being in clinic all the time. Maybe as time goes on I may leave clinical practice behind?

What else would you like people to know about your job/career?

If you decide to pursue a career in dental hygiene, remember, you are there for the patients and that is it. If you do something that is not in the best interest of the patient you are treating then you have broken the trust that the patient has in you. We, as dental professionals, probably get much closer and more intimate with our patients than any other. The patient essentially lays their head in the lap of a complete stranger and we should never break that special bond that, with time, we can bulid with the people we care for. Remember, we are health professionals first and foremost.