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Is it just a job, or are you eagerly advancing career? 5 tips for the lifelong joy of being an RDH

Sept. 19, 2016
Linda Meeuwenberg, RDH, offers tips on revitalizing a career as an RDH.

By Linda Meeuwenberg, RDH, MA, MA, FADIA

Do you wake up pushing the snooze button and thinking, "I don't want to go to work today?" We all have had those days when the warm bed is seeking to keep us in its clutches. Or, do you get to work and by the last patient, you are thinking, "Is this all there is? I studied hard and passed boards for this? My patients are not following my directions, my boss is ungrateful, and my coworkers bring too much drama to the office." Or, do you count the hours before the workday ends and are just putting in your time for the paycheck? If any of these are recurring thoughts and behaviors, it may be time to re-energize your career goals. I believe in choice.

Last night I was honored to be the guest speaker at a dental hygiene school's graduation ceremony. As the graduates recited the dental hygiene oath, it made me pause and reflect on the numerous hygienists I come in contact with during my travels. Perhaps this is a good time for us to review the oath that most of us recited at our graduation ceremonies and likely haven't given much thought to since then.

"In my practice as a dental hygienist, I affirm my personal and professional commitment to improve the oral health of the public, to advance the art and science of dental hygiene, and to promote high standards of quality care. I pledge continually to improve my professional knowledge and skills, to render a full measure of service to each patient entrusted in my care, and to uphold the highest standards of professional competence and personal conduct in the interest of the dental hygiene profession and the public it serves."

Are you in compliance with this oath today as you look back at your career? Are you feeling less than optimistic about your career choice? I have observed that we go through transitions in our careers. The excitement and passion about dental hygiene is at a high level on graduation day. You leave the academic environment and embrace the opportunities lying before you. There are many mixed emotions as you enter your new professional life. Can I really do this? Will I be able to stay on time in a dental office? Can I make a difference in my patients' lives? There are also the feelings of leaving school and the many friends we made. While these emotions are prevalent, there is also an eagerness to meet the challenges.

After about five to seven years, I receive many inquiries from hygienists asking if I can advise on other career paths. They are ready to explore new opportunities. I call it the seven-year itch. Many feel that they studied so hard but are feeling like they have perfected the techniques they studied and have become bored. The idealism associated with a new graduate has waned.

Several indicate that they love being a hygienist. However, they seek opportunities outside the operatory. Some are already experiencing health problems such as musculoskeletal pain. Others are just plain bored with their "job." A variety of factors contribute to this feeling: office manager and/or team members that are annoying, lack of appreciation from the employer, inability to move to a higher level, inability to have control over products/instruments, etc. They are looking for guidance.

In 2014, I wrote a column for Access magazine (American Dental Hygienists' Association). The column was titled "Transitions" and attempted to assist the readers to think outside the box for enhanced career development throughout their lifespan. Those articles produced many inquiries from the readers. It was heartwarming to listen to their stories and offer guidance. No longer is the hygienist going to college to find a husband (perhaps a dentist) and drop out of the workplace to raise a family. I know that hints at my age, and the millennials reading this are probably chuckling over this concept. I have a hygiene friend who is an international speaker and author. When entering her dental hygiene studies at a university, she was encouraged to enroll in a typing class. "In case you don't make it in dental hygiene curriculum, you could always be a secretary."

Graduates today face their world with the anticipation of a lifelong career in dental hygiene. Most will be content with clinical practice. Others will branch into education, sales, consulting, public health, going to dental school, or obtaining graduate degrees.

One of the many things I love about dental hygiene as my career path are the numerous opportunities to build on the primary dental hygiene educational experience. Today, many hygienists enroll in a degree completion program as they aspire to have a bachelor's degree to add to their credentials. I never have felt bored with my profession. I graduated with an associate's degree. Ten years later, I earned a bachelor's degree. Ultimately, I earned two master's degrees.

I embraced education and learned that I was an information seeker. I also acquired numerous CE credits and continue to do so. It is no wonder that I ended up in higher education teaching dental hygiene for most of my adult life. In my 60s, I can say that I love this profession as much today as I did the day I received my graduation papers and dental hygiene pin. As I continue to attend numerous CE courses, I stay active in my professional association, serving on the board of my local dental hygiene component and serving on the board of a foundation that provides oral care services in my community.

So the question is: How do I stay fired up instead of burned out? Many ask me that question so I shall attempt to answer.

1 Involvement with profession-I have been a lifelong member of the American Dental Hygienists' Association. In addition, I have been a long-time member of the International Federation of Dental Hygienists and the Association of Dental Implant Auxiliaries. Staying active in my state and local components provided me continuing education, networking, and interacting with my peers about issues in clinical practice or with our profession.

Most importantly, the professional association offers us leadership development opportunities by serving as a board member or officer.

2 Lifelong learning-I have always been an information seeker. Going to continuing education courses, attending state and national conferences, reading journals, and attending study clubs have kept me current on new technology, products, and techniques. I have enjoyed networking and meeting others in my profession. Both the information gained and new colleagues I've met have kept me passionate about dental hygiene.

I need the intellectual stimulation to keep me excited about services I offer to my patients, students, and participants in my CE courses. If I were using the same instruments and techniques taught to me in school, I would have grown bored with being just a "mouth janitor" years ago. When I went to dental hygiene school, we never thought about oral health and its connection to overall health of our patients. In fact, we only used single-ended instruments, and I had only one curette-a universal Columbia 13/14. That was standard practice in the 1960s.

3 Volunteering-As mentioned in my graduation speech last night, it is imperative that we involve ourselves in the community outside of the dental office that employs us. When you consider nearly 50% of the population does not have access to dental care, we can play a vital role in improving the health of the public. Not only do we serve the community, we also stay energized in our profession. Ask anyone who volunteers; you will receive more than what you gave from the experience. People are so grateful for your information and services, often sharing tears and hugs.

4 Going back to college-For me, continued learning has been a necessity. I need the intellectual stimulation that I suspect many of you also do. Not only does education improve your brain, it makes you more interesting to your patients. It also can provide opportunities for advancement into other areas of dental hygiene.

Many jobs outside of clinical hygiene require a bachelor's degree as a minimum. If going into education, you will need a master's degree. How fortunate we are that, today, you can earn both degrees online in the comfort of your home at your convenience. I have never regretted the investment in higher education, and it definitely afforded me more opportunities to expand and grow my career.

5 Promoting your profession-Have you taken advantage of opportunities to promote our profession? Career fairs, National Dental Hygiene Month (October), and National Children's Dental Health Month (February) challenge us to reach out to the community to tell the "world" who we are and all that we do for the public.

I have always used these occasions to appear on local TV and radio, as well as a speaker for the Rotary Clubs and business leaders in the Chamber of Commerce, to name a few. Recently, I participated in career day and spoke to four first-grade classrooms about what I do as a dental hygienist. It is never too early to plant a seed.

It takes initiative to appear at these venues. I make the contact and have never been turned away. In fact, most have welcomed me to be a guest and have given valuable feedback. "I didn't know that about dental hygiene or how oral health is connected to so many other medical conditions."

Living in Florida, I have many opportunities to reach out to assisted living centers and senior centers to talk about oral health. With many people retaining their natural teeth much longer, they are eager to learn more about oral health. Seniors always present a plethora of questions, keeping me on my toes. I have met some lovely ladies in these presentations, including widows of dentists. They were great contributors to my program and so appreciative of the information.

These are the five suggestions I share with you to help you realize dental hygiene is not "just a job," but rather a calling to, as the dental hygiene oath says, "improve the health of the public." Are you seeking opportunities to expand your calling, or are you content just having a "job"? I challenge you to become engaged for enhanced career satisfaction.

Ask yourself, "Do I really love what I do, or am I just putting in my time?" Ask yourself what you can do to expand your opportunities and passion for dental hygiene. I encourage you to reach out to your community. We have much work to do as we elevate the dental hygienist in the eyes of the public. RDH

Linda Meeuwenberg, RDH, MA, MA, FADIA , a professor emeritus of Ferris State University, is the founder and CEO of Professional Development Association, Inc. She is an RDH/Sunstar Award of Distinction recipient and named a Woman of Excellence by her local Chamber of Commerce in Florida. She delivers powerful seminars and keynotes that motivate her participants to action. Her website is lindapda.com.