It’s Not About Cleaning Teeth: What it Takes to be a Dental Hygienist

G3 Hygienist Blog

As one of the founders of the dental hygiene program at Virginia Peninsula Community College (VPCC) in Hampton, Va., Dr. Kelly Tanner, RDH is, not surprisingly, very passionate about the dental hygiene field. But her true love is education, for herself and for others.

Dr. Tanner is the program chair at VPCC and CEO of Next Level Dental Hygiene, an educational consulting business that supports dental hygienists by providing personalized support and educational tools to help strengthen and develop leadership and career growth.

In addition to VPCC, she has worked at several other colleges including Old Dominion University and Virginia Commonwealth University.

We had the pleasure of chatting with her about her experience as a leader in the dental hygiene field, as well as the dental hygiene pathway through Virginia’s Community Colleges.

A look at a dental hygienist career

Dr. Tanner knows that many people think that dental hygienists just conduct annual cleanings, but it’s much more than that. Poor oral health isn’t just linked to cavities and gum disease, but to diabetes, heart disease and other preventable conditions.

“The dental hygiene field isn’t just about cleaning teeth,” said Dr. Tanner. “As a dental hygienist you’re helping patients build individualized oral healthcare plans that support the systemic connection between oral health and the rest of your body.”

Not only is the dental hygiene field a rewarding one, it’s also one with a lot of room to grow.  

“There is so much opportunity to grow within the profession and to make an impact,” Dr. Tanner shared.  “You can go on mission trips, become a researcher or entrepreneur, work as a clinician or administrator or work in public health. You can also become an educator, and right now, we need more educators. Whatever role you want to end up in, you can truly grow. It’s an extremely flexible career.”

Dental hygienist training at Virginia’s Community Colleges

Not every community college offers a dental hygiene education, so it’s important to do your research first to find out if your local college offers the program. But, if your community college does offer the training, you’re in for a great experience.

“Dental hygiene programs through Virginia’s Community Colleges tend to have smaller classes where students can get a lot of one-on-one time,” said Dr. Tanner. “Students also get about three hours with each patient because they’re learning.”

At VPCC, patients aren’t charged for their appointments, so these schools often become a resource for the local community.

“As healthcare providers, dental hygienists meet patients where they are,” said Dr. Tanner. “We take patients’ blood pressure, conduct chairside finger prick tests for blood glucose levels and make sure that patients are healthy so we can properly care for them. There are times we refer patients out, which means we end up saving lives.”

There is a need for entry-level dental hygienists across the state, and programs like the one at VPCC are training students to fill these positions as soon as they graduate.

“We tell students that we’ll help them find a job, but most of them end up having one before they even graduate,” she said. “VPCC also has an agreement with ODU, so students can go back and complete their bachelor’s degree if that’s what they want to do.”

Do you have what it takes?

Dr. Tanner encourages those who are considering the dental hygiene field to understand it’s really not about cleaning teeth, but about taking care of the whole patient and helping them live longer.

“A willingness to learn and be flexible, as well as having skills around communication and empathy are very important,” said Dr. Tanner. “Technical competencies, such as how to operate hand and rotary instruments and being able to read charts and records, are also skills we expect students to have.”

“It comes down to wanting to help and be of service to others,” she said. “Having that helping heart is always at the center of what we do.”

Learn more about healthcare training through G3 tuition assistance.