Dianne M. Smith, RDH, MBA
When college-bound students ask about dental hygiene as a career, they receive mixed responses from practicing hygienists. Obviously, those unhappy with their current position will attempt to discourage the pursuit of dental hygiene as a career. However, it might be good for all hygienists to step back and take an objective, broader look at the dental career in relationship to other jobs, as well as with respect to what it is, what it could be, and ways to improve each working day.
Hygienists have jobs that offer flexibility, the ability to work independently, a chance to use technical and intellectual skills, many side benefits, and the opportunity to enhance one`s job description. In comparison to the other jobs in the market, it has many advantages that most of us fail to realize.
Few jobs offer the flexibility that dental hygiene does. Many hygienists are able to work part-time, stay with their families a few days a week, and still make a significant contribution to the family income. In the office, hygienists are routinely able to work independently and perform a variety of procedures. They are also able to develop strong relationships with patients during the periodic one-on-one visits.
Ask production workers if they would like to have flexibility, independence, ability to control their daily pace, and develop strong relationships.
The good feeling of respect
Hygienists, as a rule, are positioned under the dentists in the hierarchy of a practice. Therefore, they are respected by the dental team and patients for their knowledge and technical skills.
Smart dentists will use their hygienists as "partners in care" and have them assist with patient diagnosis and treatment planning. This enables hygienists to use their dental knowledge, as well as skills in problem-solving and decision-making, to help the dentist move the patient from an unhealthy to healthy state. Along with dentists, hygienists use their communication skills to educate and motivate patients to value and achieve good health. Dentists and hygienists have the ability to change people`s lives through improved function and esthetics.
There`s no better feeling than that of being part of making a difference in someone`s life. What other job generates that sense of accomplishment?
Several additional benefits to a dental hygiene career are seldom recognized. Many jobs require a four-year degree, and starting pay after graduation is low. Hygienists can make good money - even at the entry level with a two-year degree. In fact, many hygienists who start a different career take a huge pay cut to do it.
The night belongs to you
For hygienists, work stays at work. Very few executives have the luxury of walking out of their offices with empty briefcases and the enjoyment of their evenings at home. Hygienists also don`t have to be on call, work holidays, or put in the "three to eleven" shift. Hygienists rarely need to worry about job security. In fact, many know their schedule six months ahead! This is a total contrast to business people who don`t know from one day to the next whether they are going to be employed or laid off.
It isn`t until hygienists leave the profession that realization surfaces of the constant "stroking" hygienists receive from the patients on a daily basis. Good hygienists routinely have eight patients a day thanking them and saying how great their "clean teeth feel." The loyalty patients extend makes hygienists feel very "wanted" and appreciated.
In very few jobs do people see immediate, positive results. Patients going through cleanings are thrilled on the spot with the noticeable improvement in their smile. A hygienist can also get dramatic gum tissue healing in a very short period of time. Patients love the decrease in odor, taste, and bleeding in their mouths. They usually are grateful to hygienists for "helping them save" their teeth. How many hygienists just love to "dig" in and get those large pieces of calculus off patients` teeth?
The ability to see immediate positive results is foreign to most workers. Ask marketing people how long it takes to get positive feedback or a return on an investment.
Hygienists are a part of the big picture
Health care today is a changing field. Being a part of the growth and change should be exciting. Hygienists` roles will be changing dramatically as managed care and the demand for dental providers increase. It is going to be imperative that dentists use hygienists more. Hygienists are increasingly going to be able to make their jobs what they want them to be.
New technology increases efficiency and decreases the time per procedure. It also can make hygienists` jobs more fun. Intraoral cameras in the operatories arouse patient interest and improves patient education. Patients love seeing their teeth on the screen. Computerized probing and cleaning systems take the drudgery away from routine procedures. The generation of computerized printouts from the exam also give hygienists visual aids to discuss and send home with patients. New techniques and procedures broaden the dental choices that hygienists can offer patients today. It`s fun to see the esthetic and functional results that follow treatment.
The view from outside
As the Executive Director of Northwestern University Oral Health Center and a former hygienist, I`ve been able to look at hygiene from a broader perspective. Positioned in a salaried job, working 10-hour days with a full briefcase every night, I sometimes look back regretfully at my uncomplicated days as a hygienist.
As I work on the strategic level, making decisions that sometimes make me unpopular with my staff, I wonder if the stress is worth it. The thought of positive stroking every day, great patient relationships, positive results immediately, eight-hour days, and evenings of enjoyment sound great. Sometimes it takes seeing things in a broader perspective to appreciate them.
Dianne M. Smith, RDH, MBA, is the Executive Director of the Northwestern University Oral Health Center in Chicago.