The political statement we make shapes our professional lives and the community

July 1, 1996
Politics. Some view it as a thrilling ride on a roller coaster. Others view politics as a means to an end, a power trip, a chance to change the world, or an avenue for incessant lies. Regardless of how one feels about politics, it is pervasive. Because politics influences so many aspects of our personal and professional world, dental hygienists must be politically aware.

JoAnn R. Gurenlian, RDH, PhD

Politics. Some view it as a thrilling ride on a roller coaster. Others view politics as a means to an end, a power trip, a chance to change the world, or an avenue for incessant lies. Regardless of how one feels about politics, it is pervasive. Because politics influences so many aspects of our personal and professional world, dental hygienists must be politically aware.

Political awareness involves understanding the nature of the legislative process. Understanding the process includes knowledge of who the players are, the issues being addressed, and how to accomplish a goal within the context of a particular political arena. Political awareness also includes gaining experience in communication, negotiation, and persuasion skills. Without these skills, the dental hygienist is likely to feel incapable of handling the process and be intimidated by the players.

Why is it important to be politically aware?

You may be thinking that only hygienists who serve on legislative committees need to be politically aware. This assumption does not hold true in today`s society. Change is happening continuously. Without political awareness, we lose opportunities to preserve standards that are important to the profession as well as opportunities for growth and advancement.

In addition, it is important to recognize that dental hygiene`s licensure and regulation is political. Our licenses are controlled by state board organizations. The boards are made up of individuals who receive political appointments. The statutes, rules, and regulations which govern hygiene practice reflect a political process. Legislation is introduced, discussed, voted upon, and, if passed, enacted. That law then becomes interpreted by state board organizations and is represented as rules and regulations. If dental hygienists do not participate in this rulemaking process, our scope of practice could be significantly altered.

Throughout the past decade, dental hygienists have repeatedly demonstrated that local efforts can make a significant difference in legislative outcomes. What many constituents lack in political action committee funds can be balanced by volumes of letters of support, telephone calls, and meetings with legislators and their aides.

When preceptorship became an issue in Georgia, dental hygienists throughout the state became a unified, organized voice opposing this legislative initiative. Hygienists formed teams and worked to educate the public and their legislators concerning the disadvantages of preceptorship. They developed a strategy for handling each aspect of the issue and made a lasting impression with their presence at the state capital. Ultimately, that legislation was defeated. What we learned from the experience in Georgia enabled dental hygienists from other states to better manage their preceptorship challenges.

When President Clinton launched his health reform initiative, many dental professionals were concerned that the proposed bills did not adequately address the oral health needs of the public. Through thousands of legislative contacts and coalition building, our legislators gained a greater understanding of the importance of including oral health as a part of total health.

These two examples illustrate dental hygienists reacting to legislative initiatives in a successful manner. However, hygienists should also be proactive influencing legislation that promotes the health of the public. For example, hygienists can initiate legislative action toward banning the sale of smokeless or "spit" tobacco products to minors, promoting the use of heart-healthy and reduced-sugar or sugar-free meals in schools, or promoting community water fluoridation. One voice can make a difference, but only if it is heard.

Ways to become politically active

To become politically aware, one must become politically active. The activity can take on many forms depending upon interest in, and knowledge of, the issues, as well as the level of comfort and expertise in influencing others. To be successful with a legislative initiative requires both content and influence.

In terms of content, dental hygienists need to be able to research the issues, identify the facts, and project implications for the health and safety of the public. Once the facts are secured, they need to be presented in a user-friendly format so that people unfamiliar with scientific language can easily understand and interpret the information. Key messages related to the issues need to be developed. These messages should be clear, concise, and easy to remember.

In addition, it is important to have information concerning dental hygiene as a health care profession readily available. Some legislators are not familiar with this profession. A fact sheet that defines the discipline of dental hygiene and the contributions hygienists make to the public should be prepared.

Another aspect of content requires hygienists to review their state association policies. If the legislative issue is important enough to seek the endorsement of the state dental hygiene association, there should be policy specifically addressing that issue.

Most dental hygienists have confidence in their ability to manage the content aspects of political involvement. We know how to use our resources to research information. We can interpret literature and demonstrate how the facts obtained will affect the public and the profession. Knowledge is power, but, in politics, knowledge without influence has its limits. Often, it is the area of influence that hygienists find intimidating. Influence requires as much preparation and planning as content.

Do you have the ability to influence?

Influence involves communication, persuasion, and negotiation. To have influence, dental hygienists need a strong support base. This means working from the bottom up, garnering support from within dental hygiene first. To present a unified front, hygienists must educate each other on the political issues, build consensus concerning how to address the challenge, and train each other in communicating the key messages.

The first test of persuasion may be to convince each other that the issue warrants every grassroots hygienist involved in letter-writing campaigns, telephone calls, and visits on the "Hill." Sample scripts make letter writing and phone calls easier to manage. Car pooling is another way to get a group of hygienists to meet with legislators. Some individuals find it as intimidating to drive into a city environment as meeting with a political figure.

Another element of persuasion and negotiation may involve the need to secure monetary resources that will enable the hygiene organization to employ a lobbyist, support the educational awareness campaigns, or travel to meetings with interested parties. Hygiene organizations tend to have limited budgets, but reserving funds for legislative efforts is a wise investment in our future.

Influence may also take the form of networking with other communities of interest. Depending upon the issue being addressed, it may be helpful to have built a relationship with organizations that represent children, senior citizens, women`s groups, etc. Forming coalitions is another vehicle for demonstrating strength through numbers. A coalition representing thousands of people from various walks of life sends a powerful message to legislators.

In addition, it is important to take the time to build a relationship with your legislators. Legislators should be aware of the needs of their constituents. Dental hygienists have the opportunity to become known and communicate their intent by working on the election campaigns of legislators in their districts, regularly sending newsletters to the legislative office, conducting periodic meetings with the aides and legislators, inviting legislators to speak at local meetings, and serving on boards and committees.

Lastly, practice makes perfect. Developing content and influence requires a commitment to refining skills. With that effort comes triumphs and tribulations. You may find that your message was clear to colleagues - but not to the public. You may learn that while a legislator supports an issue in theory, another organization`s funds has greater influence. With each challenge comes new skills that will need to be developed and tested. These challenges are not insurmountable, but they do require patience, perseverance, open mindedness, and a sense of humor.

Gaining political awareness is an opportunity for personal and professional growth. Why not begin today by developing a plan to become politically active? Since this is an election year for many individuals, perhaps you can start by working on a campaign. You may want to join the legislative committee of your state organization serving as a content expert, a script writer, or a public speaker. Or you can research the newspapers and learn the topics that may impact oral health care, write to the senator or congressional representative of your area, and practice your communication skills.

An example that may be of interest is the current effort to significantly cut the budget of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Think about the impact OSHA has had on creating better infection control practices for dentistry and dental hygiene. Would you want this to change in any way? If so, how? How would cutting this line item affect the practice of dental hygiene? Contact your federal representatives and let your thoughts be known.

Legislative change occurs on a daily basis. You can choose to be part of the process or the recipient of the process. Get started and become involved in the political arena on whatever level seems most appropriate. Not because you can make a difference for dental hygiene and the public, but because you do make a difference.

JoAnn R. Gurenlian, RDH PhD, is president of Gurenlian & Associates. She provides seminar and consulting services for health-care practitioners.