Colorado Given Boost in Addressing Lack of Dental Hygienists
Dental offices are suffering from staff shortages — in particular, a shortage of dental hygienists.
It’s no secret that during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, dental hygienists were in the crosshairs for exposure risk. In fact, many treatment protocols changed to mitigate such risks. Nonetheless, even as we begin to recover from the worst of it, a measurable degree of hesitancy to return to work remains among dental hygienists. This has led to a plethora of unfilled positions.1
Despite improvements in safety practices and availability of vaccines, the American Dental Association attributes about a 10% drop in dental practice capacity to a scarcity of both dental assistants and dental hygienists. But the organization reports that while enrollment in dental assisting programs has been shifting downward since 2015, dental hygiene program enrollment really took a dive during the pandemic. Though there have been some improvements in dental hygiene program enrollments, workforce shortages are expected to be a long-term problem.2
FUNDING A REBOUND
In response to the situation, states and organizations are taking action to shore up a sagging workforce in the dental setting and to boost needed diversity in the profession. The Delta Dental of Colorado Foundation recently announced it was awarding a grant of nearly $5 million to address the dental hygienist shortfall in that state.3
The money will go to four of Colorado’s colleges that are known for their diverse student populations. By expanding diversity in the dental hygiene field, the hope is to recruit more talent, while also improving access to care.3
“We cannot meet our workforce gaps without doing a better job of educating underrepresented populations,” said Joe Garcia, chancellor of the Colorado community college system.4
Pikes Peak State College, Colorado Mountain College, and Front Range Community College will receive funding to launch new dental hygiene programs in 2025. Community College of Denver will receive almost $890,000 to double the capacity of its current dental hygiene program, which offers both 2-year and 4-year degree options.3
NOT JUST THE PANDEMIC
The shortfall in dental staffing across the nation can’t be blamed entirely on the pandemic. The ADA reports that fewer than half of dental hygienists who left early in the pandemic returned in 2021. Reasons cited for leaving include retirement, career change, negative workplace culture, insufficient pay, lack of growth opportunity, inadequate benefits, feeling overworked, workplace safety concerns, and childcare issues.2
Other factors impacting the profession involve dental hygiene program enrollments. In 2020-2021 there was an estimated 7% drop nationwide in first-year enrollments. There was also a 4% drop in graduation numbers from those programs compared to the year before.2
Grants such as that awarded to Colorado’s community college system, could make a significant impact in reversing this trend. Said Helen Drexler, the CEO of Delta Dental, “Our investment is doubling the number of dental hygienists that will come out of school, ready to practice, ready to train or teach, and most importantly, ready to educate all patients on the importance of oral healthcare.”4
- Morrissey RW, Gurenlian J, Estrich CG, et al. Employment patterns of dental hygienists in the United States During the COVID-19 pandemic: an update. J Dent Hyg. 2022;96:27–33.
- American Dental Association. Dental Workforce Shortages: Data to Navigate Today’s Labor Market.
- Flowers T. Four Colorado colleges granted $5M by Delta Dental to expand oral health programs.
- CCCS News. Delta Dental awards $4 million to expand dental hygiene programs at CCCS colleges.