Fewer than half of dental hygienists who left employment early in the pandemic returned to the workforce in 2021, according to a study from the American Dental Association and American Dental Hygienists’ Association.
The finding is part of research conducted by the associations between September 2020 and August 2021 with a panel of 6,976 dental hygienists across the U.S., Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. The associations examined the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on employment, infection prevention and vaccine acceptance among dental hygienists, and their research has been published in the February issue of The Journal of Dental Hygiene.
“This research collaboration with the ADA marks an important moment in oral health,” said Ann Battrell, CEO of the ADHA. “Our shared understanding of what dental hygienists are experiencing provides us with essential evidence-based direction for how we can support safe and supportive workplaces, deliver care safely to patients and help define lasting practice improvements that may emerge from this pandemic.”
As of September 2020, 7.9% of study participants who had been employed in March 2020 were no longer working as hygienists. That percentage dropped to 4.9% by August 2021, as some hygienists returned to work. However, 1.6% of participants said they no longer intended to work as hygienists, possibly representing a permanent reduction of 3,300 dental hygienists nationwide.
“Not unlike many other professions in the United States, challenges persist in dental hygienist employment,” said Rachel W. Morrissey, senior research analyst with the ADA Health Policy Institute. “The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated a voluntary reduction in the dental hygiene workforce and may persist, as some dental hygienists are choosing to permanently leave the profession.”
Despite seeing recovery in their patient volume, dentists continue to report challenges recruiting and retaining dental hygienists because of the pandemic, according to HPI data. The authors note that future studies should examine workforce levels after the pandemic resolves, as well as factors that impact dental hygienists’ decision to return to employment in clinical practice settings.
The research also found dental hygienists had a low rate of COVID-19 infection and a high rate of vaccination.
The cumulative infection rate among hygienists was 8.8% as of August 2021, compared with 11.7% among the general U.S. population. Also as of August 2021, 75.4% of hygienists had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, a higher proportion than the general public and health care workers overall outside dentistry at that time.
“We’re pleased to see that dental hygienists have demonstrated continued low incidence of infection and high vaccination, proving the profession’s ability to mitigate risk while providing care in a safe manner,” said Cameron G. Estrich, Ph.D., health research analyst with the ADA Science & Research Institute. “Increased vaccine availability and greater supplies of personal protective equipment should further enable dental teams to continue to follow infection prevention measures to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission.”
The associations will continue to work together to further understand the impact of COVID-19 on the dental team. As the pandemic continues, the authors believe opportunities exist for hygienists to play an important role in public health and safety. However, ongoing and increased education and policies are needed to support the continued use of PPE and infection control and prevention procedures, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and required by government regulatory agencies.
“This study of dental hygienists has shown us the profound impact of COVID-19 on clinical practice, as well as the value of disease prevention measures,” said JoAnn Gurenlian, Ph.D., a lead author of the research and ADHA’s director of education and research. “Workplace safety is of paramount importance to dental hygienists, and it has an effect on employment patterns. This underscores the need to adhere to infection control guidance and proper PPE.”
The researchers will discuss their latest findings during a live webinar at 6 p.m. CST Feb. 22. To register and submit questions for the panelists, visit the webinar page. Registrants will receive a link to a recording of the webinar, which will be posted on ADHA.org as well.