Virginia Department of Health Professions

ANALYSIS: Virginia’s Growing Dental Hygienist Shortage Impacting Access to Dental Care

Virginia Dental Association and partners advocating for policies aimed at helping more people enter dental workforce 

A newly released report from the Virginia Healthcare Workforce Data Center points to the urgent need for expanding education programs for dental hygienists in the Commonwealth, according to the Virginia Dental Association.  

The report reveals Virginia continues to have more dentists than hygienists, an uneven ratio that can delay patient care. 

“Across the nation and in the Commonwealth of Virginia, the chief barrier to patients getting timely appointments and receiving essential dental care is the availability of our dental workforce,” said Ryan Dunn, Virginia Dental Association CEO. “We must prioritize and invest in the education and training of dental hygienists and assistants, ensuring a workforce that can meet the immediate and growing demands of oral health care in our communities.” 

Virginia dentists are permitted to supervise up to four dental hygienists. 

A recent poll of dentists by the American Dental Association’s Health Policy Institute found that since the pandemic half of dentists have personally taken on duties previously assigned to other team members due to staffing challenges, preventing them from practicing at the top of their license and limiting their ability to care for more patients. 

Trending in the Wrong Direction 

In the past year, Virginia saw a three percent decrease in full-time-equivalent (FTE) dental hygienists, while FTE dentists increased by six percent. 

Contributing to the decline are class sizes well below historic highs at Virginia’s dental hygiene programs. In 2023, Virginia had 483 newly licensed dentists and just 287 newly licensed dental hygienists.  

Adding to concerns, the dental hygiene program at Virginia Peninsula Community College – one of only five Virginia Community College System programs – has not enrolled new students since 2022 and has paused its admissions indefinitely. In addition to educating more than 100 dental hygienists since the program opened its doors in 2010, the school’s on-site dental clinic has provided dental care to more than 11,000 patients in the region.  

The remaining positions in Virginia’s dental hygiene programs have become increasingly competitive, with Northern Virginia Community College and the VCU School of Dentistry hygiene programs able to accept fewer than a fifth of the students who apply. 

Essential Healthcare 

Dental hygienists play an essential role in dental practices. For many general dentists, the availability of hygienists is the key factor in their ability to see more patients.  

Dental hygienists are among the top 20 in-demand jobs in Virginia that you can qualify for with a 2-year associate degree, with the highest median income among the fast-growing health professions. 

Virginia’s dental hygienist shortage is particularly acute in Northern Virginia and Richmond, according to a VDA analysis of state data.  

Meanwhile, more Virginians are trying to access care after the state passed a new adult dental Medicaid benefit in 2021 which provides coverage to 750,000 new patients.  

The VDA is working with its partners to raise awareness about dental hygienist opportunities and creating an action plan to address the dental hygiene workforce shortage. 

New and ongoing programs hold promise for helping to ease workforce challenges: 

  • Virginia is among the first five states to pass the Dental and Dental Hygienist Compact, which will reduce barriers for dental hygienist licensure across state lines.  
  • Planning authorization funding for a new building for the VCU School of Dentistry, included in the conference report sent to the Governor, will also include the ability to expand the capacity of their dental hygiene program. 
  • A program through Virginia’s Community Colleges called G3 helps cover the tuition of select in-demand fields like dental assisting and dental hygiene for individuals with a household income of less than $100,000.  
  • Legislation passed in the 2024 General Assembly session to allow dentists and dental hygienists experiencing burnout or mental health challenges to seek confidential help through the Safe Haven program without fear of licensure or liability repercussions. 

“These positions are in-demand from students and employers alike,” concluded Dunn. “When we give more Virginians access to enter this rewarding career, it means more people in our communities can access essential dental care.” 

Allied dental programs are holding in-person and virtual open houses in the coming weeks for students who are interested in exploring careers in dentistry. Learn more at   

Learn more about recommendations from the Virginia Dental Workforce Council, presented to the VDA House of Delegates in January