Virginia dentists grappling with a shortage of hygienists and what that means for patients

Dentists across Virginia are scrambling to fill a statewide shortage of dental hygienists.

The gap is most acute in Northern Virginia, according to the Virginia Dental Association.

“There’s a huge imbalance in the number of hygienists to dentists right now and Fairfax County is feeling it the worst,” Dr. Justin Norbo, the association’s president-elect, who owns a dental practice in Loudoun County, told WTOP News.

The shortage is even affecting patient care at some dental practices, as there aren’t enough hygienists to schedule regular six-month cleanings and X-rays for patients.

Some patients have been wait-listed, instead of getting in to see their dentist.

“They’re an essential part of the team,” Norbo said. “Fifty years ago, or more, folks only came into the dental office when they had a toothache or when they had a problem. Now, we preach preventive care.”

He added that a “perfect storm” of problems is causing the shortage.

During the pandemic, many hygienists left the field and didn’t return. This happened as dental colleges began enrolling fewer students.

For instance, last year about 483 new dentists received their license to practice in Virginia, but only 287 hygienists earned a license, said Norbo.

“The numbers should be reversed,” he said.

The shortfall has placed dental hygienists in the top 20 in-demand positions in Virginia. Some of those slots come with signing bonuses, Norbo said.

Meanwhile, some dentists are forced to perform the duties of a hygienist, limiting their ability to care for more patients.

“Nearly half of all dentists are now performing duties that auxiliaries were doing prior to 2020,” said Norbo. “We are doing things that we can be delegating and we’re not performing to the highest level that our license will permit.”

The Virginia Dental Association is scrambling to boost the number of hygienists in the state. It’s asking local colleges to increase enrollment sizes.

Virginia is one of five states that have recently agreed to recognize each other’s dental licenses. The partnership opens the door for dentists to easily recruit out-of-state candidates.

The dental association is working to add more states to that list.

“We’re hopeful that this will help in allowing [hygienists] to go where the workforce is in high demand,” he said.

Norbo said dentists have a clear message for patients waiting to visit a hygienist.

“I don’t want to see patients get discouraged,” he said. “We want to get them inasmuch as we possibly can to make sure we’re keeping up with preventive maintenance because that could lead to bigger problems, if not addressed.”

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