Finding an unscaled niche

Nov. 1, 2005
There comes a time in our lives when we must state the truth and wait for the consequences, knowing that many will not agree or admire us for that honesty.

There comes a time in our lives when we must state the truth and wait for the consequences, knowing that many will not agree or admire us for that honesty.

Here is my stand: I do not enjoy scaling teeth. This is a sentiment shared by at least a few of my colleagues.

Some will interpret this to mean we do not enjoy our jobs, are not committed to our careers or passionate about the profession of dental hygiene. Yet, nothing is further from the truth. It is possible to promote and enhance the profession without enjoying every facet of our careers.

I know a doctor who almost quit practicing medicine because he did not enjoy the day-to-day task of seeing patients one at a time. He assumed he did not want to be a doctor because of this lack of fulfillment. Luckily, a mentor introduced him to the growing field of computer use in medicine.

This doctor found his niche and has been instrumental in coordinating treatment for HIV patients all over Northern California. He does not lack passion for the medical profession; he is just a “big picture” person who wants to help as many patients as possible in the most efficient manner.

Dental hygiene also has participants who are big picture oriented. Their passion lies in speaking, teaching, and promoting our profession. While many speakers also still scale teeth, some have left that task to undertake a new mission. We need these individuals to present us with timely and accurate continuing education. These are also the folks who are working on campaigns to educate the population about the important role dental hygienists fill in our health-care industry. Big picture visionaries are the instructors and professors in the dental hygiene programs, teaching those scaling techniques to others who may develop an enjoyment of clinical practice.

I also don’t believe we need to take pleasure in scaling to be excellent clinicians. It is possible to care about the oral condition and overall health of our patients without getting excited over the task of popping off those chunks of calculus. Multi-task! If your passion is educating patients about smoking cessation, use the scaling time to start discussing the health benefits of quitting. If your current emphasis is related to caries reduction, scale away and educate about fluoride, xylitol, and powered toothbrushes. If you are a sports enthusiast, remove plaque and calculus while you promote the use of mouthguards to the young athlete in your chair. The ability to educate patients is just as relevant to being a good clinician as scaling teeth.

There appears to be a prevailing thought in the world that if you are not passionate about your job (or marriage or any other part of your life), you should move on. We have all heard the “life is too short to be unhappy” motto.

I suggest that a lack of passion for one aspect of your career does not need to lead to unhappiness. The challenge is in finding a way to incorporate your passion into your career. If you enjoy reading, try your hand at research. If you lean more toward art, there is a market for diagrams, illustrations, and patient education books. If you like to teach, the field is wide open.

Humor, and sharing it, is a life passion of many, me included. We laugh at the language of dental hygiene. Take the word “probing,” for example. If we were not dental-minded, the first images in our minds would be scenes from the movie “Alien” or the security guard at the airport. There is no place other than the dental operatory where you can check someone’s pockets without the possibility of being arrested.

Dental hygienists scale teeth while others scale mountains or rocks, although both tasks can require the use of picks. The stand-up comedian in all of us contributes to our profession by putting patients at ease with our quick wit, and by helping our colleagues laugh when they might otherwise cry from frustration.

Service is another passion that most of us share as health-care providers. My career would still be in a slump if not for the service provided to me by my mentors. Numerous members of our profession are willing to share their knowledge and passion with anyone asking for such help. I am privileged to know a hygienist in my town who works on her days off as a hospice volunteer, providing a valuable service to the patient as well as the caregiver.

Some hygienists have taken their chairs on the road, providing prophy and sealant services to underserved children through school systems or community clinics. Still others contract with nursing homes to serve the elderly.

There is no lack of passion among these professionals, yet scaling is often secondary in the care they provide. In these populations, education and prevention are often the biggest need. Giving aid to those who need it can be a boost for your spirit that will cross over to every aspect of life, including your career.

In fact, just witnessing this commitment to service held by my fellow hygienists has made me proud of my profession. After Hurricane Katrina, over 2,000 “listers” from banded together to provide financial assistance to our colleagues in need. Most of us have never met face to face, yet the desire to serve is strong.

It is impossible to not be passionate about a career that attracts such wonderful people, even with my lack of fervor for scaling teeth. If each of us found a way to give just one hour of service every week, I know career satisfaction would increase.

At some point in our careers, most of us will face the day when we no longer enjoy going to work. Many call it “burnout.” I prefer “reality check.” It is a deep determination that we can do and be so much more than the person who cleans teeth. Hopefully, this reality check will lead each of us to find an area in our careers that we can embrace and improve.

A lack of enjoyment for scaling cannot be interpreted as a lack of passion for the profession of dental hygiene. Step out to the edge and discover the possibilities available.

Lory Laughter, RDH, BS, practices in Napa and Sonoma, California, in both general and periodontal offices. She is a partner of Dental IQ, a team committed to arranging quality continuing education opportunities for Northern California. Through her involvement with Dental Hygienists against Heart Disease and other organizations, she hopes to bring a total health concept to the dental practice. You may contact Lory at: [email protected].