Facts about dental hygienists

Dec. 1, 2010
Strong personalities are rarely appreciated during their lifetimes.

by Lory Laughter, RDH, BS
[email protected]

Strong personalities are rarely appreciated during their lifetimes. We recognize forward thinkers after their words are spoken and brave actions are shown – often only after their deaths. Some people even lost their lives for speaking strong convictions. Perceptions eventually changed, and history reveals that outspoken, honest, and brave people were labeled pushy, rude, and uncaring regarding what they believed in.

I oftentimes see negative reactions toward hygienists who are willing to take a stand on important issues. The prevailing theme in our professional arena appears to be, "If you can't make everyone happy, don't talk." Hold on to your hats because that theme needs to be shattered.

FACT: There are more RDHs looking for work than there are available jobs. This is not just a slight difference, but a significant percentage of veterans and newly graduated hygienists seeking employment who cannot find jobs. It is impossible to build a career if a simple job cannot be realized. Regardless of what some organizations would like us to believe, this fact is not circulated by scared RDHs afraid of competition. There are simply not enough clinical jobs to go around.

FACT: Schools and colleges continue to add dental hygiene programs, even in areas where there is saturation by job seekers. More diplomas and licenses are awarded than the market can handle. I have personally seen some of the advertising that entices potential students with promises of a big income for a limited class time. This is not fair to the students or our profession.

FACT: Nobody should be denied their goal to obtain an education in their chosen field. It is not my desire to squelch any dreams. Students deserve to make educational choices based on truth and open communication about career opportunities. They are not finding this honesty on Web sites that promote a "great career without the necessity of a degree."

The solutions to these facts will need to center around balancing the pool of job seekers with the job market (decreasing the number of new graduates), or expanding the settings in which hygienists can treat patients. The settings need to be both independent and prevention oriented. Allowing educated, professional dental hygienists to address the prevention needs of our world seems like such a simple and obvious answer. Trying to get people to agree on those points is another story.

At the risk of being labeled rude or uncaring, my stand is to increase the entry-level educational requirements for dental hygiene. Our profession, our careers, and each of us individually will benefit from receiving a degree that equals the hours and years spent earning our license. Most, if not all, graduates deserve a bachelor's degree – it's time to award that degree.

Increased independence will require education above the entry level – a common concept among professionals. Not everyone will desire this higher degree, limiting those individuals to an entry-level position. There's nothing wrong with that either. While I'm sticking my neck out, let me add that I believe those with a PhD, who do the research required for recognition as a profession, should be rewarded monetarily. Educators, scientists, and those working hard to advance the profession should not be delegated to the low paying status sometimes found among our institutions of higher learning.

I am aware that my stand may actually result in fewer, albeit well educated, dental hygiene professionals. It is a risk our careers need to take. As more states delegate preventive duties to on-the-job trained workers (with no increase in RDH duties), failing to take a stand may lead to the demise of our profession as a whole. Health-care professionals should be educated, strong, brave people willing to state the unpopular truth. There are too many RDHs in the pool right now for the swimming area available. It is time to either learn to tread water in a tighter space, dig a wider pool, or simply quit adding swimmers.

Lory Laughter, RDH, BS, practices clinically in Napa, Calif. She is owner of Dental IQ, a business responsible for the Annual Napa Dental Experience. Lory combines her love for travel with speaking nationally on a variety of topics.

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