Recent graduates chat with a veteran, sharing their hopes about future in hygiene

This year marks my 20th anniversary as a "civilian" hygienist. I actually started in the dental field in 1969 while in the Air Force. The subject of this article is a little play on words too. I am a veteran hygienist and a veteran who was in hygiene. My four years in the Air Force, subsequent education, and extensive experience in dentistry has nurtured my love and enthusiasm for the profession. Obviously, hygiene ranks number one with me, and it always will.

Robert W. Ankrom, RDH, BS

This year marks my 20th anniversary as a "civilian" hygienist. I actually started in the dental field in 1969 while in the Air Force. The subject of this article is a little play on words too. I am a veteran hygienist and a veteran who was in hygiene. My four years in the Air Force, subsequent education, and extensive experience in dentistry has nurtured my love and enthusiasm for the profession. Obviously, hygiene ranks number one with me, and it always will.

When I found out I was going to get the opportunity to talk with current hygiene students and report my findings in RDH, I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity. Numerous questions popped into my mind even before I hung up the phone. How different would today`s students be from those of us who graduated in the early to mid-1970s? After all, this is the 1990s, and I should find out some very interesting information.

Was I disappointed? Was I amazed? Did I come away with some great revelations? The answer to these questions is no. However, listening to what the students had to say brought back a few feelings from the dusty shelves of my mind. I was much more curious as opposed to surprised by the discussion with them.

The students I talked with were finishing their last year in hygiene instruction. They revealed a variety of backgrounds, ranging from no previous dental experience to seven years experience as a dental assistant. Did the experienced students have an impact? Read on.

Work forever and ever?

As this point, let`s simply progress through the discussion we had. I offered information concerning my background and indicated we were just going to make this an informal discussion with no holds barred. Bringing pizza for everyone didn`t hurt either.

I got the ball rolling by asking how many of the students intended to go out into the world and practice hygiene for a number of years. The first response was, "You mean `forever,` until we retire?" Another said, "I plan to do this until I retire. I want to have children and, when I do, I`ll work less. I can see myself at some point going back to school. I can`t see doing this for 25 years. Burnout is high."

I inquired if this decision was made before starting in the hygiene program or as she progressed through her studies. As she progressed, she responded.

Did anyone else feel this way? "It depends on when I get married, where I am, and how well we are doing," said one of the most vocal of the group. "I may get my BS. I may go into sales or another area of the health profession. I may even go to dental school. I am the type of person who accomplishes one thing then has to move on to the next goal. I`m a hygienist, why not become a dentist?"

She indicated that she does not want to teach and that, at this point, all she wants to do is finish the program. It sounded to me as if this student has doubts. Certainly not unusual for anyone just graduating from college. Will she stay with the hygiene profession? It`s hard to tell, but it would be quite interesting to see where she is 10 years from now.

In a bit of a contrast, another student put her goals in a different perspective. "I can`t see myself doing anything else but hygiene at this point. Maybe not until retirement - but for a long time. I have heard the whole time since I decided to go into hygiene that I will get burned out and have trouble with my hands. A lot of hygienists have told me that."

I hope when she says "a lot of hygienists," she really means a few. Burnout will be expected and accepted if students are hearing about it before they graduate. You can equate that with the expectations of "the old days" that you will lose your teeth and will require dentures.

Adding to her statement, she said, "I have heard from those who really love hygiene that they do it for that reason. It`s not because they have to or need the income. They have built close relationships with their patients."

This is an important part of being a hygienist. You really do build close relationships with many of your patients that could last a lifetime. As these students will find out, one of the most important aspects of our profession is the ability to capture the respect and gain the utmost in confidence from our patients.

We next discussed when they decided to become hygienists. Two students said they thought about becoming a dentist but they did not want to go to school for so many years. One said, "I decided to take the next step down."

I wondered how many interpretations there are for that statement?

I asked, "Why dentistry instead of another profession?" In-the-chair experience spawned the desire of one student who said, "I had so much dental treatment when I was younger, with so many changes for the better, I decided that this is what I want to do." My guess is she had felt this way for quite sometime. What a pleasant experience she must have had during those years of having dental work done. How many people do you know that can say that about their past experiences in the dental chair? Think about that. Every time you see a patient you have a great impact on them. Let`s hope it is always positive.

I asked the group to remove the team concept from their minds and asked what they think their specific job will be as a hygienist. Besides patient treatment, the most common response was patient education and "selling" dentistry. Along with this thought, I asked them, what is the number one thing you will do tomorrow with your patients? A combination of responses put it this way, "You have to build yourself into the practice. You have to get to know your patients and win their confidence before they will start listening to you. I have heard this from hygienists who have been out there for a while. The older hygienists also say the new grads think they will have a lot of time to talk with and educate the patients. In many cases, it is not true."

I hope that future students will not have to listen to the hygienists who are unhappy or suffering from burnout. This has to have a negative effect on the students. Let these students go out and conquer the perio world! They want to do this and their level of enthusiasm is high. Let`s not knock them down before they start.

Since we were nearing the end of our time, I asked what I felt to be important questions. Their answers will tell you where the students stand with their convictions for dental hygiene. I first asked what are they going to offer the profession of dental hygiene. Their quick response was, "Provide quality health care and good, sound dental education."

I next asked if, at this point, the profession owed them anything? Without hesitation, I heard, "We, as hygienists, should be treated as partners in the practice and not looked down upon. We produce, we educate, and we help the whole practice."

At the beginning of the article, I referred to a question asked during my visit with the students. Did any who lacked previous dental experience gain from the classmates who had? The resounding response was, OYes! If they did not like what they were doing, they would not be here today.O

What an impressive statement. Do you think they are ready to add their expertise and enthusiasm to the hygiene profession? Absolutely. Students, you have a lot to offer. Go after those goals, be the professional you are, and, above all, stay at it!

Robert W. Ankrom, RDH, BS, has been in dental hygiene since 1969 and is a practicing hygienist in the offices of Dr. Woody Oakes and John Anoskey, both in Indiana. He is also an independent hygiene consultant working with McKenzie Management. He may be contacted at McKenzie Management at (800) 288-1877 or by faxing (812) 425-7438.

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