For the past decade, oral health has been discussed by many different entities, and I feel in some ways it is starting to be valued by decision makers. Specifically, dental hygiene, the prevention of dental disease, seems to be emphasized. I would like to believe that part of this is because of dental hygienists. Dental hygiene has been around only for a century, and changing values does take time.
I believe that consumers, political stakeholders, and other health-care providers are beginning to recognize dental hygienists as dental providers, for their clinical skills and knowledge of dental care. I feel the same way about dentists, that the same groups recognize them for their clinical skills and knowledge of dental care. Because dental providers have a value to society, it is important to remember that this can be a power to make changes and to develop solutions to dental care issues.
Another skill that dental hygienists and dentists have is the educational training that focuses on oral health. These educational backgrounds should not be discounted since no other health-care providers have the theoretical knowledge or clinical skills gained from the clinical experience that dental providers possess. Dental providers can give advice and input that is unique and truly comes from experience.
I believe it is essential that we as dental providers realize that there is power in united fronts, and that we should have input into solutions that are specific to dental care issues. To do this, we must realize the importance of maintaining our collective voice in dental care. I think that as dental hygienists, we would all agree that when the dentist reiterates what we have just explained to a patient, it means much more and brings an added value. I believe most dentists would agree the same to be true when hygienists reiterate.
Often when I’m in meetings to discuss dental issues and potential solutions, the focus is on access to care. At many meetings and during public discussions, much of the blame is placed on dentists. One of the first comments that comes to mind is that access to care is dentists’ or the American Dental Association’s fault. I think this is dangerous thinking, and I do not feel like any of us can come up with workable solutions with this divisive talk. Dental hygienists may not always agree with organized dentistry, but we’re still in dental care together and need to work for solutions together.
Many claim that U.S. dentists are uncaring and are only interested in making money. First, I have known many dentists in my years, and I feel that they truly do care about patients. Secondly, many believe that if a patient cannot pay for dental care, then the dentist should provide it anyway. There are problems with this inherent concept, as well, because all workers in the U.S. need to be able to make a living. How many other professions are criticized for not offering free services or products to consumers?
Still, I do believe we need to do a better job of increasing access to dental care for those most in need. In fact, I think dental hygienists could have a pivotal role in access to care by positioning their practices in schools, primary care clinics, hospitals, nursing homes; the list could go on. Dentists and dental hygienists should be working together to increase the use of dental hygienists in all areas.
What we really need is for dentists and dental hygienists to come up with solutions together and to support one another. We do such a great job of working in tandem clinically; now we need to start working together to provide a united and collective voice for solutions in dental care today. Instead of attaching blame to dental care issues, we would do better to focus on positive solutions to the access to care problem together. RDH
Christine Nathe, RDH, MS, is a professor and graduate program director at the University of New Mexico, Division of Dental Hygiene, in Albuquerque, N.M. She is also the author of “Dental Public
Health Research” (www.pearsonhighered.com/educator), which is in its third edition with Pearson. She can be reached at cnathe@ salud.unm.edu or (505) 272-8147.
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