How the Pandemic Has Changed the Dental Care Industry & Dental Hygiene Education

dental hygienist working on patient

The healthcare world, and the students aspiring to join its ranks, are now reacclimating to an industry still recovering from, and in some ways forever changed by, the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, which is commonly referred to as the COVID-19 pandemic. 

We at West Coast University thought the dental hygiene profession deserved an even closer look, since this is a part of healthcare that was particularly affected by shutdowns. Let’s start with how the pandemic has affected the dental industry, and then take a look at how adaptation and innovation have been instrumental in restoring and even improving dental practice.

While many sects of healthcare during the pandemic were overstretched, such as respiratory wards in hospitals, patients largely stayed away from the dentist’s office. Why? Many patients may see dental care as less “urgent” than an immediate medical need, and there will likely be a long-tail effect on overall dental health and hygiene that will take years to study and understand. In the meantime, patients have begun returning to the dental chair, and to a new set of protocols and considerations that have developed over the last few years in response to COVID-19.

In this post, we’ll take a look at some of the ways the industry is adapting. Even the term “post-pandemic” is still being used with caution, if at all, and some of mandates that took root during the most uncertain times of COVID-19 are now primed to become standard practice.

Let’s sort through some of these changes and how schools and practices are adopting training and treatment in dental hygiene. We’ll also offer some insight into WCU’s post-pandemic protocols, and how we’re protecting our own dental hygiene students from COVID-19’s ongoing infections and an unpredictable future in the “post-COVID” healthcare ecosystem.

An Industry Impacted

It’s no surprise the dental healthcare industry was heavily impacted during the pandemic. We’ll get to the unique challenges, but first, let’s look at a few of the numbers that have emerged through surveys and research about just how heavily the impact was felt in dental care.

During lockdown, when dental offices were largely closed, patient volume fell dramatically to 7% of typical levels, and employment levels in dental care were down by more than half between March and May of 2020. Some of this unprecedented loss in activity in the industry, on both sides, was due to factors that impacted the economy at large—fear of infection, behavioral mandates, shortages of PPE, as well as lifestyle considerations like school closures that made keeping up with normal life habits more challenging.

On top of these factors, dental healthcare faced a unique set of challenges particular to the nature of oral health treatments.

Dental Care During the Pandemic

Because dental hygiene is an occupation dominated by a female workforce, factors like reduced access to childcare and school closures had an outsized impact on employment levels during the pandemic. But in addition to the demographic makeup of dental hygiene professionals, the unique nature of oral healthcare created challenges not felt, or at least not felt as acutely, by other sects of healthcare.

Dental care was assessed as a particularly high-risk occupation during the pandemic, earning a risk assessment of 99.7/100. This can be largely attributed to the proximity required to treat dental patients, leading to increased exposure to airborne contagion with most interactions requiring the patient to be unmasked. In addition, dental hygiene care routinely involves the presence of aspirated fluids—aerosols and droplets—that are byproducts of procedures involving dental cleanings and assessments. Along with inhalation hazards, dental healthcare professionals are often in direct contact with fluids and membranes that carry pathogens like COVID-19. 

For these reasons, the dental industry was uniquely positioned to feel the effects of pandemic lockdown.

Post-Pandemic Trends: PPE and Emerging Protocols

While dental healthcare continues to recover and adapt to the post-COVID-19 attitudes and expectations, certain protocols that emerged during the height of the pandemic have become somewhat normalized, with enhanced safety moving forward for both patient and practitioner. While private practices are still largely self-determining as to which new safety measures and equipment they’ll implement long-term, more rigorous use of personal protective equipment (PPE), patient screening, and adoption of technologies to mitigate infection risk are increasingly common.

Dental office equipment is also being widely upgraded and updated. High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters are now present in many offices to purify air quality and accelerate the removal of aerosols and droplets. Internal and external suction equipment helps control for salivary contamination, and many dental offices are improving overall ventilation, in some cases with ventilation between each patient. 

Another important area of expansion in the post-pandemic era is teledentistry. The pandemic has seen expansion of both telehealth and digital communication as indispensable tools of care. Unlike many other forms of healthcare, most procedures administered by dental hygienists can’t be performed remotely, so teledentistry applications can’t be applied wholesale. Cleanings, diagnostics, and assessment typically require a hands-on approach. But teledentistry is an option for certain oral healthcare needs, many of which apply to the work of a hygienist. 

Among these are consultations around nutrition for patients at risk for gum disease, and patient monitoring after a diagnosis or procedure. Since dental hygienists are so critical to preventative care and patient education, these techniques are highly relevant to students and graduates of dental hygiene programs. 

Moving Forward: Industry Benefits & Opportunities

In spite of all the challenges faced (and largely met) by the dental industry during the pandemic, there are signs that it is emerging more resilient and better prepared for future health crises and ongoing COVID-19 concerns and variants. 

In addition to improvements in technology adoption and safety protocols we’ve already explored, telehealth has become easier for providers to use, with interfaces as well as back-end concerns like reimbursement becoming easier to navigate. In a complementary development for the dental industry where telehealth applications are more limited, there is a positive outlook in patients opting for more in-person care as perceptions around safety improve. 

Another challenge that also presents a potential bright side for graduating dental hygienists is employment outlook. Many older hygienists opted to retire early during the pandemic, and while this has led to staffing shortages that are a short-term pain point for dental offices, it is also creating additional opportunities and employment choice for a new generation of dental hygiene professionals. In fact, according to Rachel Morrissey, who is a senior research analyst for the American Dental Association (ADA), 40% of dentists are actively recruiting dental hygienists.

How WCU Has Improved Its Dental Hygiene Program

At WCU, safety and study go hand-in-hand. At West Coast University, we operate our own no-cost dental hygiene clinic out of our Orange County campus, where we have implemented permanent changes to reflect leadership in student and patient safety protocols. We consulted our Dean of Dental Hygiene, Michelle Hurlbutt, about how our Bachelor of Science in Dental Hygiene program has responded to the pandemic and improved practices for a post-pandemic dental hygiene education. Here are some highlights:

Our dedicated Orange County dental hygiene clinic has adopted a policy of mandatory N95-grade masks for all BSDH students while working in the clinic. Our BSDH Students must be individually fit-tested for their mask size. Additionally, our clinic is outfitted with safety equipment like external suction and air purifiers with HEPA filters, to minimize aerosol and droplet exposure, and all patients and students are screened for symptoms prior to treatments.

In addition to safety protocols, we have integrated teaching techniques into our curriculum such as teledentistry and learning about “long COVID” and immunocompromised patients, especially when it comes to emergency care. At the Orange County campus, our BSDH students are visiting our local nursing facilities to participate in simulations with WCU nursing students, to incorporate important synergy in learning for changing times.

Staying Ahead in an Ever-Changing Dental Care Landscape

For now, the dental health industry is continuing to rebound toward its pre-pandemic capacity, and evolve beyond it. As additional variants emerge, waves of infection fluctuate, and we anticipate new concerns developing in the future, dental hygiene will continue to adapt to protect hygienists and their patients, and ensure a high quality of care without compromising safety.

At WCU, we look forward to staying at the forefront of new technologies and teaching techniques to address the complicated past, present, and future of dental hygiene and oral healthcare. 

WCU provides career guidance and assistance but cannot guarantee employment. The views and opinions expressed are those of the individuals and do not necessarily reflect the beliefs or position of the school or of any instructor or student.