By Norah Myers
Danielle Sykes has been working as a dental hygienist for six months and has already paid off her government student loans. She applied for entry to the University of Manitoba’s dental hygiene program in 2007 after completing pre-requisite courses in chemistry, anatomy, physiology, psychology, sociology and statistics at the university but was not accepted on her first try.
The following year, Danielle took a few other courses to boost her grade point average. She then spent a year and a half working as a receptionist in a dental office before reapplying to take the program. She was accepted for 2009 entry. Her work in the office helped her with the learning curve between her prerequisite courses and the dental hygiene program, where she studied radiology, pathology, microbiology and periodontology, among other courses. She continued working in the dental office weekends and in the summer.
“We literally learned everything you could know about the head and neck. We learned communication skills. We literally learned anything that could possibly be relevant to our practice,” she says.
The University of Manitoba’s dental hygiene program is an academically and physically demanding two-year course. Danielle explains: “The work is hard on your hands, wrists, fingers, neck, back and eyes.” In school, students are taught how to take care of their own bodies. This minimizes the risk of developing carpal tunnel syndrome and other cumulative trauma disorders. They also must have strong abdominal muscles and back muscles, which they learn how to tone, strengthen and maintain in a class called “fit to sit”. Students are taught preventative measures that they must use continually in their practice.
Danielle also keeps her body healthy and in good shape by playing ringette, hockey, badminton, riding her bike and stretching. With proper self-care, she says, a dental hygienist can have a 30-year career.
Danielle finished her schooling, wrote her national board exam to become a certified hygienist and obtained her licence, which must be renewed yearly. She became a member of the College of Dental Hygienists of Manitoba. A month later, in June of last year, the dental clinic offered her a chance to fill in as a hygienist while the current incumbent went off on maternity leave. In that job, earning wages of $36 an hour for an 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. day, she sees eight or nine patients daily. She removes plaque and tartar from their teeth and teaches them about oral health.
Dental hygienists often take on two part-time jobs to be fully employed, but Danielle was lucky. She is happy in her job.
In addition to working in private practice, registered dental hygienists in Manitoba are employed in psychiatric facilities, personal care homes, and hospitals. Registered dental hygienists can also work in the public health care system, providing oral health promotion in order to educate public school students about proper oral hygiene care, in academia and in management.
“As a registered dental hygienist, you are a primary health care provider for your clients,” says Stephanie Gordon, registrar-executive director of the College of the Dental Hygienists of Manitoba.
Stephanie says there are many opportunities for advancement in the field of dental hygiene. It is not limited to private practice. Registered dental hygienists can earn master of science degrees and PhDs, which enable them to teach at the public school or university level. They can also be employed at insurance companies, looking at fraudulent dental and oral health claims.
Stephanie herself began practicing as a registered dental hygienist in 2000 and started her career in private practice, she then delved into public health and management. She enjoys dealing with legislation and regulations in her current position.
The starting wage for a registered dental hygienist is around thirty seven dollars an hour and increases in income come with further experience and further education. There are currently 650 practicing registered dental hygienists in Manitoba.