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What if?

Feb. 1, 2018
Lory Laughter, RDH, writes that dental hygienists need to take ownership of their profession by becoming active in dental hygiene associations and networking with one another. 
The dental hygiene profession could surge forward if we imagined the possibilities

Lory Laughter, RDH, BS, MS

I’m not always a fan of the game, “What if?” But the game seems appropriate for our profession right now. I’m a bit weary of the old complaints over patients who won’t floss, or those who would rather have pink nails than pink gums. That isn’t the “what if” I’m after here. Instead of queries about our patients’ mouths, let’s play the game with the very real threats to our profession.

What if every RDH in every state (or providence) attended a legislative day and brought an example of one way patient health was improved through oral preventive services? Instead of arriving with toothbrushes and floss in hand, we could arrive with glucose monitors, stethoscopes, and sphygmomanometers to show our role in health care and disease prevention. Perhaps each RDH could introduce a patient whose life was saved as the direct result of a hygienist’s intervention.

Our discussions with political leaders might focus on the lifesaving role dental hygienists can provide in pediatric care. Rather than a drawn-out lecture on the benefits of fluoride varnish, a united message could center around the unnecessary deaths during sedation dentistry, attributable to the lack of appropriate preventive care. It is time for those in charge of spending the dollars to learn that RDHs are prevention specialists and not in competition with the dentists to drill and fill.

The starting point for such an important undertaking will be to educate some of our colleagues about these very facts. It is astonishing to me to hear at conventions or CE events how some hygienists view themselves. Many do believe they’re in practice only to remove stain, plaque, and calculus, and to make patients happy. Good Yelp reviews appear to have replaced great preventive care in some instances. If the RDH community as a whole views our career as one of scale and polish, there’s not much hope for the future of our profession. The role of health-care delivery is changing and we’d better be ready to jump on board.

What if every dental hygiene graduate understood the need for membership in a professional organization to protect our profession? Beyond that, what if those same graduates knew that active participation, asking questions, and demanding accountability were essential components for such organizations?

It’s one thing to pay dues and expect everything to be done for you. It is another to be involved at some level and allow yourself to know the threats and help shape the answers. Don’t get me wrong, paying dues is vital and at some points in our lives dues are the most we can do. But when opportunities present and your skills are available, stepping up will do more for your personal growth and the profession than ever imagined while inactive.

I’m impressed with recent graduates entering the profession right now. Not only can they scale, they know the disease process, understand inflammation, and seek to provide evidence-based practices. Once out in the “real world,” the pressure to create smooth, shiny, white teeth overrides some of those earlier lofty ideals. I challenge all hygienists to create conversation with our new colleagues about political involvement, ethical dilemmas we have faced, and how we can protect the future of preventive oral care. Our conversations as health-care professionals can stand a bit of updating.

Our conversations as health-care professionals can stand a bit of updating.

What if the dental hygiene profession took control of our own education system? There are far more colleges and universities providing education to future hygienists than dentists. There’s something wrong with the picture when the ADA and CODA dictate the education for our profession. Some will say dental hygiene has a voice in the process, but if you look at it realistically, that voice is small and often goes unheard.

Dentists are focused on treating and repairing damage from the disease process, and that’s where their education is focused. It is an outcome-based education, as it should be, where the end product of treatment is measured.

On the preventive side of dentistry, hygienists are more process focused. The end measurement is how well a state of health can be maintained with the tools and procedures offered by RDHs. Patient education is more of a focus in our profession because we realize most of the healing or health maintenance is done outside of our presence. Totally different approaches to education and the necessary outcomes exist between dental and hygiene education, which suggests that each should be directed by appropriate bodies. Dental hygiene needs to oversee the education of future dental hygienists. It’s a huge undertaking, but one that deserves our attention now.

What if we all saw the future of dental hygiene as brightly as I see it? Can you see the promise, possibilities, and opportunities among the frustrations? I dare to think that if we focused as much energy on the possibilities as we do on the frustrations, our profession would have no limits. Preventive care would be the first care provided, and hygienists would be leaders on that team. I’m not playing Pollyanna to the very real threats to our careers. I understand the need for job security and how poorly some RDHs are treated. The challenge is to see how we can turn the “what ifs” into “remember whens.” No one is going to do it for us. In the words of my wise mother: “Help clear the path, or get out of the way!” It’s up to us.

Lory Laughter,RDH, BS, MS, practices clinically in Napa, Calif. She is an assistant professor of periodontics at University of the Pacific. Her role as an international speaker allows her to combine her love of travel with educating dental professionals. She can be contacted at [email protected].