Registered Dental Hygienists –Mentors, Kari Wright and Katie Arneson

Registered Dental Hygienists –Mentors, Kari Wright and Katie Arneson

These women each have over twenty years experience as dental hygienists. But they took different routes to enter the profession. Kari went to a university and received a four-year degree while Katie took her prerequisites at a local college in the evening while she was working full time and then entered a two-year program where she received an associate’s degree. Despite the different academic paths, they both hold the same state license. In their article, they also point out that getting into a dental hygiene program is very competitive and offer suggestions on ways to improve your chances of being accepted. Besides the skills needed to perform dental procedures, they also talk about what is required of you physically and emotionally to be successful in this career field. Their article will be of interest to anyone considering becoming a dental hygienist or entering similar areas of health care.

Getting Started


I knew as early as middle school that I wanted to enter some area of healthcare. I decided to become a dental hygienist because I always enjoyed going to the dentist and liked the flexibility of Dental Hygiene with a family. After two years of prerequisites, I applied and was accepted for one of only 24 openings at the University of Oklahoma’s two-year program where I received a Bachelor of Science in Dental Hygiene. In order to be accepted, I had to have letters of recommendation, a good ACT score and a high school GPA of 3.0 or greater. From this information, the faculty decide who they would like to interview and then make their final selection. So if you want to enter this profession, it is important that you apply yourself in high school and also begin looking for opportunities to get the observation hours in a dental office, that are now required to be accepted to a program.


 I also had an early interest in health care and dentistry. But I could not afford to go to a four-year college after I graduated from high school. Instead, I went to a technical college and first became a dental assistant. I worked as an assistant for two years while I went to school at night and took my prerequisites. These included classes like chemistry, anatomy, microbiology and algebra. I then applied and was accepted for one of only 14 openings for a two-year associate’s degree program at a local state college. So my overall class work was equivalent to about three years of college. Being a dental assistant was an advantage because I had more actual experience in a dental office than most others who were applying. Both mine and Kari’s license are the same and are issued by the state. To receive a license after graduation from college required written testing and a clinical demonstration of our skills.



As dental hygienists, our primary duties are to educate patients on ways to improve their oral health and do procedures to prevent disease that also maintain a healthy environment in the patient’s mouth. Educating our patients includes teaching them ways to maintain their oral health like tooth brushing, flossing and nutrition. Procedures include cleaning teeth where we remove calculus and plaque and also examining patients for signs of oral disease like gingivitis, periodontitis and cancer as well as applying preventive materials like fluorides and sealants. We also do dental charting and take and develop dental radiographs (x-rays). After the visit, we document in the patient’s file.

In our state of Oklahoma, dental hygienists can also get licensed to give anesthesia and administer nitrous oxide. Dental hygienists cannot get licensed to do these adjunct services in every state.

Being able to build strong relationships with the patients is important so they trust your advice. It is also vital in maintaining the dental practice. We both have patients who have been with us for many years because we try to listen and understand each of their individual needs and take a personal interest in their care. There is a lot of satisfaction in having patients who you have kept healthy and who stay with you over the years.

Because of the type of procedures a hygienist carries out, it is important that you are comfortable around blood, food, plaque and bacteria that you will deal with when you treat patients. Observing many different dental procedures in a dental office is crucial before you start down this career path.

Another thing many people do not understand is that the job is physically demanding and taxing on your body. You are leaning over to use dental tools to clean and polish gums and teeth and extending your arms for 30 to 40 minutes for each patient. Both of us have worked a hygienists for over twenty years and are experiencing pain in our upper backs, necks and shoulders. We regularly get therapeutic massages and go to chiropractors.

As a hygienist, you have several job options. You can work in general dental practices like we do or in specialty practices such as periodontics or pediatric dentistry. You can also be employed to provide dental hygiene services for patients in hospitals, nursing homes and public health clinics with the supervision of a dentist. There are also opportunities such as teaching dental hygiene students and other dental hygiene education programs. We have a friend who is a pharmaceutical representative to dentists and have heard of some who market dental-related materials and equipment.


Compensation and Work Scheduling

If you work in a dental office, there are three primary ways to be compensated. First, you can be on a daily salary. We both used to work on a daily salary but now are on an hourly wage, which is the second type. Lastly, there is a commission compensation where you are paid a percentage of what the dentist bills the patient for your services. Benefits vary. People who work full time can get some health care and retirement benefits. But many of us do not work full time and therefore, do not receive benefits. There are a lot of part time hygienists because one of the advantages for women who have children is that your work schedule can be flexible. For example, one hygienist in our office comes in later because she has young children that she has to get off to school.  You can also work fewer than five days a week. Kari works two to three days a week while Katie works three to four days a week. The pay is one of the highest for the health services field below that of a doctor. So you can still earn a good living working part time. But you should understand that the pay varies by region. Right now there has been an expansion in the number of dental hygiene programs in our area and the market is becoming saturated while in other parts of the country there is a better match between graduates and employment opportunities.



We both enjoy being dental hygienists. There is a lot of satisfaction in providing a valuable health care service while building trust and strong relationships with your patients. You also get to meet a variety of interesting people. Because the pay is good and the flexibility offered by full and part-time employment options, we have both been able to balance our careers and our family life while we raised out children. Future employment opportunities also look good due to the success of preventive dentistry in reducing the incidence of oral disease. The expanding older population is retaining their teeth longer and is more aware of the importance of regular dental care. With this emphasis on preventive care, dentists will need to employ more dental hygienists like us to meet the increased demand for dental services. But demand varies by region and getting into a program is competitive. You must apply yourself in high school. You should try to maintain a 3.0 GPA or higher and you will need a good ACT score. It is also important that before you begin you spend some time in a dentist’s office so that you can see if you are comfortable working in that environment. All dental hygienists in the United States must be licensed by the state in which they practice after completing a minimum of two years of school and passing a written board as well as a clinical board exam. Check the requirements in your particular state.


US Department of Labor Salary Statistics for Dental Hygienists


The median annual wage for dental hygienists in the US was $70,210 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $46,540, and the top 10 percent earned more than $96,280.

Some dental hygienists receive benefits, such as vacation, sick leave, and contributions to their retirement fund. However, benefits vary by employer and may be available only to full-time workers.

More than half of dental hygienists worked part time in 2012.

There were 192,800 people employed as dental hygienist in the US in 2012, the year of the department’s last survey.

The profession is expected to grow by 33% from 2012 to 2020. This is much faster than the average rate of growth for other professions of around 10% during the same time period.

Dental Hygienists have one of the highest pay scales of all health care workers below the level of a physician. Their pay is about twice as high as a dental assistant, 10% higher than a nurse, equal to a radiation therapist and 15% less than a physician’s assistant, which requires six years of study.


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