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Your Ethical Standards

Aug. 1, 2010
If your code of ethics differs from colleagues, do you stand firm?

If your code of ethics differs from colleagues, do you stand firm?

by Jane Weiner, RDH

Although I know that we all try to be very ethical in our professional and private lives, some situations put us on the brink of falling into gray areas. This article reinforces the ethical principles that we are taught in the dental hygiene profession.

The common definition of ethics found in dictionaries is a “set of principles of right conduct or a theory of moral values.” This brings to mind value systems.

Everyone has a different upbringing, even among two siblings within the same household. One of the most difficult things to change is the value systems of those who honestly believe that they are right in what they value and how they were taught. I frequently see this in the dental offices where “production” has become the major factor, not treating the individual’s personal needs.

A dental professional’s value system is personal, and it can be influenced by cultural values. In essence, the personalized value system becomes a “moral code” for that individual.

The dental hygiene profession is taught a code of ethics. Hopefully, we all follow it to the best of our ability. The profession’s code of ethics is based on a preamble that states that we are “devoted to the prevention of disease and the promotion and improvement of the public’s health.”

It encourages us to live meaningful and productive lives. The code can be satisfying in our professional life, as well as our private lives and in our communities.

State dental practice acts mandate that we provide services that meet the minimum standards of safe practice. On the other hand, the code of ethics asks us to achieve high levels of ethical consciousness that help guide us to recognize ethical issues and choices, as well as guiding us in making more informed ethical decisions.

This awareness stimulates our continuing study of ethical issues, challenging us to establish concise standards of behavior that help shape the general public’s expectations of the profession. It mandates that we support dental hygiene as it operates today, and follow the laws and regulations set forth in state dental practice acts in each state we work. As many of you holding multiple state licenses know, the laws and regulations can vary from state to state.

Ethics, community, and responsibility are among the fundamental core values of the profession. The core values that the code of ethics states are:

  • Individual autonomy
  • Respect for human beings

Remember that the patient has the ultimate right to make an informed decision prior to treatment. We must disclose all of the relevant information that assists them with this decision. But we must leave our value systems at the door. Our respect for the patient’s value system is of utmost importance. We may work on changing the attitude about personal health and welfare, but it may take a very long time to do so, depending on the individual’s values.

If each dental hygienist reviewed his or her values regarding professional ethics, he or she may well reflect on the following points.

  • Confidentiality — We must maintain confidentiality with our patients at all times. Modern legislation such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) challenges traditional methods for ensuring a patient’s privacy, and we must stay abreast of any changes in HIPAA regulations.

When we document a patient’s treatment or dental visit, we must remember to leave out opinion and just document the facts. We must keep our opinions to ourselves and not create a situation where we violate confidentiality with the patient.

  • Societal trust — We need to remember that the patients and general public trust us, and this trust is based on our actions and behaviors. In my opinion, it is something that we earn.
  • Nonmaleficence — We must treat our patients in a way that minimizes harm to them.
  • Beneficence — We owe it to our patients to engage in health promotion and disease prevention activities, as well as to keep abreast of new changes in health care and the dental profession.
  • Justice and fairness — Everyone should have access to the same quality and affordable oral health care. Just because patients are enrolled in HMOs does not mean that they are not to be offered the best of treatment for their specific conditions. We must treat patients equally and on an individual basis.
  • Veracity — We must always be truthful, not only to our patients but within ourselves. We must value our knowledge and express treatment options in an honest and fair way.

Much of what I have said is how we all live our professional and private lives, but every once in a while we are asked to breach these beliefs (even in what seems to be a simple and nonmaleficent fashion). We must have the courage of our convictions to stand firm on our ethical principles and beliefs. We must remember that the patient’s needs come first, not our own or that of the dentist.

We should encourage co-workers to keep abreast of new products and theories, and bring these ideas to the office meetings to share with the entire staff. If we work together as a team to give the patients ethical and fair treatment, the outcome is phenomenal.

We must strive in our personal lives to do the same with our families and friends about health-care issues, treating everyone with the same respect with which we expect to be treated.

I urge you to take a step back, look into the mirror, and remember that we cannot change everything. We can, however, certainly bring our best traits to our daily workplaces and be the professionals that we were trained to be.

If you would like to review the entire Code of Ethics for the Dental Hygienist, you can go to this Web site:

Jane Weiner, RDH, is an Informatics Specialist at Nova Southeastern College of Dental Medicine in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. She is the owner of Jane Weiner, RDH, Board Reviews, Inc. ( ). She is co-author of Saunders Review of Dental Hygiene, 2nd Edition. Jane can be contacted at [email protected].

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