An in-depth interview that may help you decide whether you'd like to become a dental hygienist.

Josie Collins has been fascinated by dental care from a very young age. Unlike most children, she anticipated family trips to the dentist with excitement rather than terror. And unlike most childhood fascinations, this one stuck. When the time finally came for her to start thinking about her future, Collins’ decision was obvious; she enrolled in dental school and started working toward her dream career as a dental hygienist.

Today, at age 46, that dream has become a reality—although Collins still speaks about her work with the excitement of a fascinated child. “I love dealing with people, I love helping people, and that’s what dental hygiene is all about,” she explains when I ask her why she’s so happy in her career. “I know it’s kind of odd,” she laughs, “but it’s true! I just love what I do.”

Picture of Dental Hygienist, Josie Collins

Tell me a little bit about yourself. Where are you from? How old are you?

I’m 46 years old, and I’m born and raised in the Niagara region. I am a passionate photographer, and I love 80's music and spending time with my family and friends.

And you’re a dental hygienist. Can you describe your job to me?

I treat individual's oral health which involves education, oral hygiene instruction, debridement of debris, assessments of the oral cavity, planning ways to improve oral hygiene and oral health status, implementation of treatment and evaluation of how the patient is corresponding to treatment & information provided. My job also involves nutritional counselling, taking radiographs, helping with oral cancer screening and smoking cessation.

How long have you been working in the dental field?

I've been practising dental hygiene for over 21 years now. I graduated from Niagara College in 1991 with a two-year diploma in Human Relations, then graduated from Niagara College in 1992 with a diploma in Dental Assisting. In 1995, I graduated from Niagara College with a diploma in Dental Hygiene. At present, Dental Hygiene is offered to applicants as direct entry from high school if the applicant meets the academic and other requirements needed for acceptance.

Has the Dental Hygiene training program changed a lot since then?

Yes, the entrance/acceptance requirements have changed. Back when I applied, I had to write a dental knowledge exam, a manual dexterity test and an aptitude test, and back then I was in competition with hundreds of applicants for approximately 50 positions in the one-year program. We also needed to have a Dental Assistant background with at least one year experience in the field in order to apply to Dental Hygiene. Now, I believe Dental Hygiene is a two-year program and it's a direct entry from high school. Applicants must have a high academic standing and meet all requirements that are asked from the program.

Did you always know you wanted to become a dental hygienist? What drew you to this line of work?

I knew from an early age that I wanted to work in the dental field. I always found my childhood trips to the dentist quite interesting and fascinating at the same time. Everything from the sounds and the scents in the office and just the overall energy in the office intrigued me for wanting to return for more, every nine months! I absolutely love my dental hygiene profession, to me it doesn't feel like a job.... it's just something that comes naturally to me. They say, "love your job, and you'll never have to work a day in your life".... this definitely applies to me! I have a plaque on my wall that hangs in my operatory that says, "Do what you love, love what you do" and this is my secret to success.

I have a plaque on my wall that hangs in my operatory that says, "Do what you love, love what you do" and this is my secret to success.

Is that pretty typical? To be drawn to this career from such an early age?

I don't know if it's pretty typical for others but it is for me. I think it's just a personal preference, it has always been an interest and a passion of mine.

What’s the job market like right now?

Well, it all depends on where you live, and the supply and demand. Demographics play an important roll in employment opportunities. It's a competitive field, but jobs are available. It looks promising for dental hygiene positions right now.

Did you have to move around a lot before you found your current position?

No. I worked for a few years in Niagara Falls and then found my present work place 17-1/2 years ago.

What are your coworkers like, the general work environment at your office?

My co-workers and I are a part of a very important team. We all work together efficiently to provide a positive end result. We all know our job expectations and work together well to get the job done. We are a group of individuals that have blended together as a family over the years.

Would you describe it as a social job?

It's definitely a very social job. Every client is a unique individual. We become familiar with one another, our families and our current life events. We form special relationships and friendships that are based on professional rapport, trust and confidentiality.

You mean physical needs? Or emotional needs?

Definitely both applies to the profession. We as clinicians will conform to the need of the client to make them as comfortable as possible in the dental chair. For example, treating anxious children can be a challenge but by effective communication and education, reassurance is implemented. Treating clients with high dental anxiety is a common occurrence but becomes a rewarding experience when the job is completed with limited bumps in the road.

Do your patients or clients often remember you from previous visits? Do they often look forward to talking to you when they come in?

I have been treating the same client base for 17-1/2 years. They have become familiar with me and I with them. It has been about building professional relationships based on trust, confidence, and positive experience that measures the success rate on a lasting professional relationship.

And do you interact with your coworkers a lot at work?

Yes, definitely. It's absolutely a team effort. Everyone from the waiting room, front desk, the back laboratory, the sterilization area, and to the individual operatories... we cannot achieve the finished product without one another.

What’s the work culture like? Is your office pretty relaxed? Intense?

It's a busy work environment with everyone assigned to their individual tasks and responsibilities. We've all been working together for a number of years now so our day flows together quite smoothly. It definitely makes for a pleasant work day.

How do you help patients overcome those negative memories of past dental visits?

I treat others the way I want to be treated. In a stressful situation, I just take my time to explain the procedure and guide them through it until the job is done. With reassurance, guidance and encouragement, I try to make the patient as comfortable and relaxed as possible so they will gain trust in me to provide the same service the next time.

Can you walk me through a typical day?

I start with the morning preparation of my room/instruments and a review of the patient's charts. With each patient there are assessments, planning, implementation and evaluations to be made and reviewed. There is clinical debridement, intra-oral pics, oral hygiene instruction and education, maybe some denture cleaning, some sealant applications, administration of fluoride treatments, radiographs etc. My job also includes disinfection and sterilization of the work room and instruments used. I work Monday through Thursdays from 8:30am to 5:40pm.

And at 5:40pm, you can just go home and be with your family?

Absolutely. Once I leave the office, I have completed my professional duties for the day until the next work day.

Do you have to do additional training after your diploma?

Yes, we are regulated and licensed by the CDHO (The College of Dental Hygienists of Ontario) and we are responsible for maintaining at least 25 hours a year of continued education/educational readings and setting learning goals for ourselves for quality assurance that ensures knowledgeable clinicians. We are professionals that are obligated to maintain and submit a professional portfolio for review at any given time.

What’s the best thing about being a dental hygienist?

I think the best thing about my job is that it doesn't feel like a job to me. I find it to be exciting and challenging at the same time. To me I view my work as if it were art , I start out with a blank canvas and then when finished, I can see the beauty of the end result. Achieving and maintaining oral health is job satisfaction for me!

To me I view my work as if it were art , I start out with a blank canvas and then when finished, I can see the beauty of the end result.

And what’s the worst thing about your job?

I think the worst thing is just trying to stay on time. Because it’s very detailed work, and I put my 100% into everything. I want to make sure that when I start something, I’m going to finish it. If that means I have to go over, I will sacrifice a little bit of time. But my target is to stay on time.

How would you describe your work­ life balance?

It's amazing. I work four days a week with a long weekend every weekend. I have ample vacation time so the balance is quite healthy.

Are there a lot of dental hygienists who work nights?

Yes, there are hygienists who work afternoons and some weekends. It really depends on the workplace and the hours they have to offer.

Sounds like you got lucky!

Yes I did! I have great hours, vacation time, amazing employers and co-workers, a pleasant workplace that offers many job perks.... Christmas parties and generous gifts, office trips, summer BBQ bash, a birthday lunch, uniform allowances and paid CPR re-certification etc.

Is that pretty typical? Do most dental offices operate that way?

I think that dental offices operate according to the way their employers want to operate it. I generally think that the better you treat your employees the harder they want to work and the happier they are working! It makes for a very productive atmosphere.

What’s the career trajectory like? Do people tend to stay in one company for a long time, like you did?

I think that when someone works so hard to get to where they are in dental hygiene they tend to stay unless they are unhappy with their career choice or workplace.

Are there a lot of opportunities for promotion in this career?

Dental hygienists may become self initiated and are able to work on their own in their own private practice. We can work for public health, general dentistry, educational facilities, research departments, periodontal offices, paediatric dentistry and in management too. So many different avenues that can be taken!

Do people tend to leave dental hygiene?

No, not really a common event unless it's something that they are unhappy with or a medical condition arises.

What’s so tough about becoming a dental hygienist?

I think that the challenging part of becoming a hygienist is acceptance into an educational facility and completing its requirements successfully. It's a very demanding course with quite the workload!

Are there any big misconceptions about your job?

One of the biggest misconceptions out there is that dental hygienists cause pain with their instrumentation.... not always the case!

Why is this kind of work a good fit for you?

It's a good fit for me because I enjoy it. My profession plays a very important role in my life... it gives me purpose and a way to help others. It is fulfilling and very rewarding for me to help others become healthier individuals.

What kind of person tends to struggle in this line of work?

I think individuals that lack communication skills, don't work well under pressure, don't have compassion for others, lack manual dexterity, are unable to pay attention to detail, have difficulty working in close proximity to others, and have difficulty completing a task in a certain amount of time will struggle with this profession.

What kind of person would you recommend this career to?

I would recommend this profession to anyone that has the desire, the interest and the passion to enter the field.

There was nothing that surprised you about the work?

I really wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I do! I’m really fortunate.

What kind of advice would you give to someone considering entering the field?

I'd tell them to go for it and to follow their dreams. If it's something that they've been considering, I would encourage them to just do it... I really don't think they will be disappointed!