Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 3, 2011

By Sarah Campbell
SALISBURY — Neplus Hall spent five years working as a dental assistant before going back to school to become a hygienist.
It’s a decision she’s never regretted once in the last 33 years.
“It’s is a wonderful career,” she said. “It offers many, many opportunities because you are not just dealing with oral care, you’re dealing with the whole person.”
Dental hygienist tops the list of fastest growing occupations in the country compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. It’s expected to grow by 36 percent by 2018.
But Hall, who works with Dr. James Murphy, said those figures could be deceiving.
She said with 13 community colleges in the state offering dental hygiene training, the supply is surpassing the demand.
“I think what makes it appealing is that everyone looks at the salary range and the fact that it’s a two-year degree,” she said.
Hall said in North Carolina, dentists are only allowed to hire two hygienists, which could make it harder for hygienists to find jobs.
Dentists also have to be physically present in the building for hygienists to practice.
“Our state practice act limits how dentists can practice,” Hall said.
But there is a silver lining.
Hall said the field remains viable because more and more people are turning to preventative care to keep their smiles as they age.
East Carolina University’s new dental school, with its inaugural class this fall, could mean more dentists throughout the state.
“We’re hoping when they get out of school, they will open up new offices,” Hall said. “And, of course, they are going to need hygienists.”
Hall said there will also likely be a need for more hygienists as the economy begins to rebound.
“Right now, some dentists are consolidating their schedules,” she said. “Dentists can clean teeth as well, it’s not what they want to do, but they can do it.”
Trips to the dentist have been cut back due to the economy, but Hall said that won’t always be the case.
“More hygienist positions may become available as people get their jobs and their insurance back and they start going back to the dentist.”
What it’s like
Hall said one of the best things about her job is getting to interact with different people every day.
“You have to be a people person,” she said. “You have to care about people.”
Hall said dexterity is also an important skill to have to be able to perform the clinical work.
And Hall said the work has its challenges.
“It’s hard, intricate work,” she said.
Hall said she would encourage those who are considering such a career to work as a dental assistant first.
“That way they can see if it’s an area that they would like to pursue before they make an investment,” she said.
Going into the practice can be an expensive endeavor, Hall said. Students have to purchase their own uniforms and instruments and pay to take boards for both state and national certification.
But for those willing to put in the time and effort, Hall said the career is very rewarding.
She said the hours are flexible, some hygienists work the basic nine to five shift while other work earlier or later in the day.
And then there’s the personal connections.
“I just love my patients, they’ve become my dental family,” she said. “I would encourage anybody who feels like they have a passion to create and keep smiles for a lifetime to try it.”
Physical therapist assistant
SALISBURY — Trudy Shore had always been interested in going into a medical field, but the opportunity never arose for her to switch careers.
So when she got laid off five years ago from her industrial job, she knew exactly what she wanted to do: go back to school.
Shore has been working as a physical therapist assistant at Rowan Regional Medical Center for about three years now.
“It was a good choice to go into this field,” she said. “I had a job secured before I even graduated.”
That should continue. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the field grow by at least 33 percent by 2018.
Shore credits part of that growth to a better understanding of the practice.
“I think more people are aware that physical therapy helps,” she said. “That wasn’t as recognized in the past.”
What it’s like
At the start of each physical therapy session, Shore talks with patients to get an update on their progress before starting exercises.
“If you have a connection with patients, they don’t mind pushing harder,” she said.
Shore works with patients who have undergone surgical procedures like knee and hip replacement as well as those who have suffered strokes or brain injuries.
“We work on their balance and strength and occasionally we’re motivators and counselors,” she said. “There’s a lot of problem solving, because the same things don’t work for everybody.”
Making the sessions fun is Shore’s top goal.
“You’re basically torturing them for 45 minutes so you want them to lighten up as much as they can,” she said.
Shore, who works at both Rowan Regional and the hospital’s outpatient rehabilitation center, said since she sees most of her patients two or three times a week, she forms a tight bond with them.
“I love the people,” she said. “It’s so great to see them get better.”
Occupational therapist assistant
Pam Minter worked as a certified nursing assistant for almost a decade before switching careers.
And she’s never looked back.
She’s been an occupational therapist assistant for Rowan Regional Medical Center for more than 16 years now.
Minter decided to change fields after seeing how much one of her patients improved after working with an occupational therapist.
Now, she works with a wide range of patients, including injured workers who are looking to re-enter the work force and people with arthritis.
“I like teaching patients ways to make life easier,” Minter said. “We do adaptive exercises for things like dressing and bathing, things they do every day so they can get back to their normal routines.”
There were fewer jobs for occupational therapist assistants when Minter graduated from Stanly Community College. But now it’s one of the fastest growing occupations.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects jobs in the field will increase 30 percent by 2018.
“More people are living longer so there is a need to help them keep their independence as long as possible,” Minter said.
What it’s like
Minter splits her time between Rowan Regional Medical Center and the hospital’s outpatient rehabilitation center off Julian Road.
She usually starts her work day at 7:30 a.m. when her first patient arrives.
Minter spends a lot of time talking with her patients, getting to know them so that she can formulate the therapy that is best for them.
“I like that I get to be creative with each patient,” she said.
Being outgoing and kind are two traits Minter said are vital to the job.
“Patients need to be able to trust you and feel like you are there to help them,” she said.
Flexibility is also key.
“Sometimes you have to modify exercises for patients so it’s good to be able to change things up without becoming flustered,” Minter said.
Minter can perform all the tasks an occupational therapist can, except patient evaluations.
Although Minter earned an associate’s degree and is certified by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy, she takes a required 15 hours of continuing education each year.
Minter said some of that training is available online, but she prefers to do it old school. “I like to actually go to the training in person because I get to do hands-on activities that I might use on my own patients,” she said.
Minter typically leaves work each day around 4 p.m. The steady daytime schedule is one of the perks of the jobs, she said. But the most rewarding part is watching her patients transition back into their normal lives.
“It’s nice to go home knowing I played a part in their recovery,” she said.

Fasting growing occupations with an associate’s degree
1. Dental hygienist
In a nutshell: Remove soft and hard deposits from teeth, teach patients how to practice good oral hygiene and provide other preventive dental care. Examine patients’ teeth and gums, recording the presence of diseases or abnormalities.
Median pay: $66,570
Projected increase by 2018: 36 percent
Why it’s growing: Increasing demand for dental care and more use of hygienists
Where they work: Dentist’s offices
Where to study: Forsyth Technical and Guilford Technical community colleges
2. Veterinary technician
In a nutshell: Perform various medical tests and treat medical conditions and diseases in animals.
Median pay: $28,900
Projected increase by 2018: 36 percent
Why it’s growing: Pet owners are more willing to pay for advanced veterinary care, increasing employment opportunities
Where they work: Veterinary clinics, boarding kennels, animal shelters, rescue leagues and zoos.
Where to study: Gaston College
3. Physical therapist assistant
In a nutshell: Help physical therapists to provide treatment that improves patient mobility, relieves pain, and prevents or lessens physical disabilities of patients.
Median pay: $46,140
Projected increase by 2018: 33 percent
Why it’s growing: Changes to restrictions on reimbursement for physical therapy services by third-party payers will increase patient access to services
Where they work: Offices of other health practitioners, hospitals, nursing care facilities, home health care services and outpatient care centers
Where to study: Central Piedmont, Guilford Technical community colleges
4. Environmental engineering
In a nutshell:  Work closely with environmental engineers and scientists to develop methods and devices used in the prevention, control, or remediation of environmental hazards; inspect and maintain equipment related to air pollution and recycling
Median pay: $43,390
Projected increase by 2018: 30 percent
Why it’s growing:  More environmental engineering technicians will be needed to comply with environmental regulations and to develop methods of cleaning up existing hazards.
Where they work: Architectural and engineering firms, local and state  government, remediation and other waste management services,
Where to study: Wake Technical Community?College
5. Occupational therapist assistant
In a nutshell: Work under the supervision of occupational therapists to provide rehabilitative services to persons with mental, physical, emotional, or developmental impairments.
Median pay: $48,230
Projected increase by 2018: 30 percent  
Why it’s growing: An increasing number of individuals with disabilities or limited function
Where they work: Offices of other health practitioners, hospitals, nursing care facilities.  community care facilities for the elderly and home health care services
Where to study: Cabarrus College of Health Sciences
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics