Matching up our actions with our words

After waiting two hours, the doctor and office manager leave because the hygienist applying for the job never showed up or called.

After waiting two hours, the doctor and office manager leave because the hygienist applying for the job never showed up or called.

Colleen Reiter, RDH, MS

We know that words and actions shape our world in a powerful way, but how do each hygienist`s words and actions impact the future of dental hygiene? As I think about this question, I can automatically list the good things dental hygienists do for patients, employers, co-workers, and the community. Those behaviors have a positive, long-term impact on the profession.

Since the profession is still evolving, we must be aware that there`s little room for behavior that creates a negative image. Unfortunately, most people remember — and share with others — the bad experiences they have more than the positive ones. An unhappy customer is bad for any business. Hygienists provide a service for dentists, so that makes doctors and patients our customers.

When I hear dentists express their discouragement with the level of professionalism about dental hygienists who enter their offices, a red flag goes up in my mind. We need to look closer at how we conduct ourselves. Dentists describe situations where hygienists say one thing, but then do something else. Is that what being a professional is about? When actions do not match words, it creates a poor image of dental hygienists and their ability to handle responsibility. Not good! This image negatively impacts the future of dental hygiene. Unless our words and actions match, the dental hygiene profession will be less likely to move forward with a strong, positive, and professional image.

Dr. Esther Wilkins, in the Clinical Practice of the Dental Hygienist, defines a profession in the following manner: "... occupation or calling that requires specialized knowledge, methods, and skills, as well as preparation, from an institution of higher learning, in the scholarly, scientific, and historic principles underlying such methods and skills; a profession continuously enlarges its body of knowledge, functions autonomously in formulation of policy, and maintains high standards of achievement and conduct; members of a profession are committed to continuing study, place service above personal gain, and are committed to providing practical services vital to human and social welfare."

Notice Wilkins states that a profession "maintains high standards of achievement and conduct," and that "members of a profession are committed to ... plac[ing] service above personal gain." Let`s consider these two phrases as we think about the impact of hygienists` words and actions on other individuals at work and during personal time.

Individuals once entered the profession to help or to serve others. Now, people seem to enter dental hygiene because of the money they can earn and the convenient, flexible hours. Are people truly desiring to help others, or just searching for "ideal" hours and income because of family needs? Is there a selfish agenda? Maintaining high standards of conduct and placing service above personal gain consists of words and actions that occur throughout the daily interactions with patients, staff, doctors, and others.

We`ve all heard the saying "actions speak louder than words," but what are hygienists` actions saying to dentists, patients, co-workers, and friends? What image is being portrayed - a dedicated, top-notch professional or a half-hearted, unconcerned professional? When there`s a genuine desire to serve others, the person`s actions are centered on helping others. However, when the focus shifts, a more self-centered behavior is seen. This is when words and actions fail to match. When hygienists truly desire to serve others, that desire is obvious in nearly all interactions.

How would you view a health care professional under the following circumstances:

Y A job interview is scheduled for the end of the day. But, after waiting two hours, the doctor and office manager leave because the hygienist applying for the job never shows up or calls.

Y The first patient is sitting in the reception area, but the newly graduated hygienist doesn`t show up for her first day on the job.

Y The hygienist calls the office manager and schedules an interview. She calls again near the appointment time, stating that she`s en route and confirms the directions, but fails to show up or ever call again.

Y A doctor hires a hygienist but is soon disappointed in her attitude toward her chores and her relationships with other personnel.

Y The receptionist arrives at the office and listens to a message from the newly hired hygienist. The hygienist reports that she won`t be in for her first day of patients because she decided to take another job.

What image do professionals portray when they consistently fail to take responsibility for their behavior? Why not be a responsible adult and, for example, make a phone call to say a mistake was made and that a particular office just isn`t the right one at this time?

What can the profession do about these red flags? To maintain a credible professional image, we must encourage others to act responsibly in all situations. Student hygienists expect faculty to be professional. Practicing hygienists often look to their local, state, and national association leaders to see if their actions match their words. More peer accountability might encourage a greater consistency of professionalism throughout the work day.

What can be done right now? Change can only begin with every hygienist looking within to determine whether actions match words. I think it also consists of simply being considerate of others, as well as taking the responsibility to ensure yours words and actions are the same - our professional image and the future of dental hygiene depend on it.

Colleen Reiter, RDH, MS, is an RDH consulting editor based in Atlanta. She can be contacted by e-mail at creiter@mindspring.com.

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