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What is the role of a hygiene department?

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This is a common question asked by both hygienists and owner doctors. To their surprise, the answer is usually more involved than it might appear at first glance. The reality of a hygiene department is that it serves as a health education business. As a business within a business, two questions need to be at the forefront of the hygienist’s and owner doctor’s mind:

  • How do you make the hygiene department successful?
  • How do you make the hygiene department profitable?

The hygienists’ role

Why should the hygienist keep the above in mind? Because gaps in the schedule mean shaky job security. No job is guaranteed, and the hygienist might be the highest-paid employee in a dental practice. This combination of a relatively high salary and schedule gaps puts them doubly at risk for a cut in hours.

Reimbursements the practice receives from insurance-paid prophylaxis treatments and x-rays are not enough to cover the costs of a hygiene department. This means lower wages for the hygienist, who does not understand what keeps this aspect of a health education business strong.

The owner doctor needs to keep the above in mind also because finding the excellent staff can be difficult, and the fastest way to create turnover is not to be able to provide the hours promised at the time of hire. Inconsistent staffing creates stress for patients as well and slows the growth process as fewer patients send referrals and write reviews.


Successful and profitable

A few foundational areas determine if a health education business will be an asset to the dental business or a loss leader. Everyone involved should be aware of these areas.

The hygienists need to produce enough in collections to cover all hygiene salaries. Also, the additional costs and expenses of the department, such as materials, employment taxes, liability insurance, overhead, and more. Every hygiene department has a break-even number and it’s vital to know it.

“This is done by ensuring 95% or more of existing patients are reappointed.”

How do you cover these expenses? One way is to expand a practice’s patient base. This is done by ensuring 95% or more of existing patients are reappointed. And unless you track this metric, your reappointment rate isn’t 95% and you’re losing patients.

The Patients

It is easy to forget that all new patients are brought through hygiene. This health education business is the economic engine that fuels the entire practice. As you want patients to come back every six months for preventative care and additional restorative work, the relationship between the hygienist and the patient is vitally important to foster, possibly even more important than the rapport between doctor and patient.

It is important that any services provided to patients are based on clinical need and supported research, not what insurance will cover. Patients will grasp this quickly and become another practice’s new patients.

Therefore, comprehensive services are essential to any successful and profitable business. From the use of antimicrobial treatments to cosmetic whitening, the hygiene department is the perfect place to partner with patients. Their lifestyle choices and how dental providers can be a part of their clinical team.

The hygiene department of a dental practice can be like the family kitchen table. It’s a place people share their stories, look forward to visiting, and find comfort and safety, as well as being a little stressful at times. Your hygiene department can be all this and be successful and profitable.

Jen Butler, MEd, is the CEO and founder of JB Partners and has been working in the area of stress management and resiliency training for more than 25 years. Learn about her services at, or contact her at

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