My hygienist

Nov. 1, 2001
A visit earlier this week with my hygienist serves as the inspiration for this note.

A visit earlier this week with my hygienist serves as the inspiration for this note. "My" is a little misleading, since this appointment was the first time she treated me. But we found out our paths have crossed. The first tip was a plaque on the wall of her operatory. The plaque was for a student award sponsored by Hu-Friedy. It was presented to her when her class graduated last May, and I attended the ceremony at the invitation of one of her instructors.

I have no recollection of the actual presentation, and I certainly didn't think, "Well, I'll be seeing her in a few months."

But there she was on Tuesday morning, probing my gums. She works for the family's dentist. I moved to Tulsa before my family did, and ended up receiving treatment from another dental office for more than five years. My family opted to go with a neighborhood dentist, and, in recent months, I decided to join them in that practice.

So my hygienist didn't have a baseline to operate from as far as my dental history goes. She meticulously checked my condition intraorally and extraorally. Her instructor would have been proud. She is the new hygienist to the practice, and, when I mentioned her attention to detail at home later, my wife said, "Uh, oh." Good for her — maybe my wife will pick up the pace a bit with her oral hygiene routines.

When my hygienist prepared to start polishing, I stopped her and asked, "Can you polish selectively, please?"

Startled, she replied, "You're the first person to ever ask me that."

It was, of course, not the first time a hygienist has polished selectively on my teeth. My previous experiences, as with most dental consumers, left me wondering, "Is she in a hurry or something? She didn't do a very good job."

Shirley Gutkowski does a terrific job in exploring the issues behind selective polishing in an article in this issue. But the most important issue, I think, is that both dentists and patients are clueless about why hygienists no longer "clean" like they used to. Now that my understanding about the reasons for selective polishing has been enhanced, I intend to ask all of my hygienists to please polish selectively.

The second tip about how my hygienist and I crossed paths before this appointment was her posture. She's young, and she was doing some things wrong from an ergonomic standpoint. I had just come back from the state's dental hygiene meeting, where my good friend, Anne Guignon, spent a whole day explaining everything anybody needs to know about ergonomically correct posture. I also know that young graduates tend to be better about belonging to the ADHA and participating in meetings than some of the veterans out there. So I asked my hygienist if she had driven over to Oklahoma City the previous weekend and listened to Anne.

She had, but she obviously thinks she's too young to worry about "ergonomics," or wasn't quite ready to incorporate worker-friendly techniques into her routine.

I wasn't going to argue about it, especially since she's the one holding the instruments. But, if you've read RDH at all during the past six years, then you know that, if you want to push my buttons, just talk about the occupational injuries occurring among hygienists. I see red, and I'm not a happy camper about it.

To top the morning off, I returned to work and found an envelope from Cindy Quinn, who periodically writes for RDH. It's always good to hear from her so I quickly opened it. She wanted to share with me an article written by Greg McFarland, the executive director of the Arizona Dental Association. It was easy to see why it caught her attention; the title is, "The hypocrite hygienists." The image he conveyed was of the ADHA leadership "wringing their hands" while taking hypocritical positions on the issue of manpower shortages in dental hygiene. I'm sure that more than a couple of ADHA officials are seething about McFarland's comments. I had a few thoughts of my own (see "Hartley's Corner" at

What irritated me when I read McFarland's article this morning is that "a shortage" of hygienists is influenced by the frequency of occupational injuries. Dentists are essentially exempt from any federal regulations governing workplace injuries. So they maim all of the hygienists they can and, when we've run out of hygienists, start inserting dental assistants into the hygiene operatory. I'm not sure what the plan is once all of the dental assistants have been crippled too.

I am, of course, exaggerating. I don't really think that dentists intentionally cripple employees. But, you know, dentists have never been terribly concerned about occupational safety. The bottom line is: Take care of yourself — starting with your first day on the job — by taking preventive actions.

Finally, I want to tip my hat to the staff at Lifelong Smiles in Covington, Ga. The dental office was selected as winners of the 2001 RDH PEARL Award. I'm also very appreciative of the efforts made by the judges and the co-sponsor, Discus Dental, and I enjoyed reading through the applications submitted for the award. So many practices strive daily to provide excellent care; my hygienist is proud to be in the same profession with you.