Where's our vision?

Feb. 1, 2011
A few months ago, while I was attending a meeting in New York City, my husband was standing in line in a bookstore waiting for a chance to meet Apolo Ohno ...

by JoAnn R. Gurenlian, RDH, PhD
[email protected]

A few months ago, while I was attending a meeting in New York City, my husband was standing in line in a bookstore waiting for a chance to meet Apolo Ohno and get his autograph for his new book, "Zero Regrets." It was a present for me since I admire Mr. Ohno's speed skating and athleticism. Behind my husband in the line was a middle school student who had already read Apolo's book and could not wait to get his autograph. The student was a speed skater who imagines himself to be an Olympian just like Apolo. My husband asked this young man to autograph my book so that I would have two Olympic champion autographs.

I read "Zero Regrets" with great interest and discovered, as is usually the case, that there is more to the man than what we see on the skating rink. Apolo professes to find strength in his mental image as much as his physical training. He notes that we all need to create a mental picture of where we want to be and what we want to accomplish. Our training for our career and life has to include this visionary component. If we do our best with these aspects – physical and mental – we can live life without regrets. And that made me think of you and our dental hygiene profession.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Is this what you imagined doing as your career?
  • Are you happy with your professional work?

If your answers to these questions are "yes," good for you. But, if you are one of the many dental hygienists whom I meet when I travel who answer "no" or "not really," maybe it's time for a rethink.

What did you envision for your career? Do you feel stuck in a rut "cleaning teeth"? Are you frustrated because you are in a mediocre office? What have you contributed to that mediocrity? And, most importantly, how do you get out of the rut?

I don't proclaim to be an expert on career paths, but what I do see is a stunning lack of vision in our profession. Too often, students graduate from their dental hygiene program looking forward to working in clinical practice, earning some money to pay back those college loans, getting a car and an apartment, starting a married life, and having a family. But they suddenly realize this is not where they wanted to be in terms of their career. They were thinking of dental hygiene as a means to an end, without considering that it could be so much more.

In academia, and during some of my continuing-education courses, I ask the participants to envision where they want to be in their career in five years and then in 10 years. I have them write down realistic steps to get to that goal. Then, we create a contract that they sign and I sign. It is that written contract that seals the deal. So many times I am greeted by former students and colleagues who are proud to tell me they accomplished their goals because I asked them to write them down. They created a vision for themselves and worked to make that a reality.

When we give serious thought to where we want to be in life, we can find ways to make that happen. We learn to identify our skill sets that are helpful, and others that we need to acquire. We learn to identify and use resources to assist us along the way. However, if we don't give much thought to our professional life, we often find dissatisfaction in that world.

The same can be said for our profession. Do we know where we want to go? What plans have we made to get to that point? What is our leadership doing to bring us to the future?

Clearly, the profession has made some legislative advances and progress with the development of new ADHP programs. One area that needs a push is our educational entry level. For more than 30 years, our members have been saying that we need to elevate the entry level for practice. Leaders in our profession and educators have discussed mechanisms for achieving this goal, but have failed to take any legitimate action.

In the report, "Dental Hygiene: Focus on Advancing the Profession," recommendations were made to commit to a date to make the baccalaureate degree be the entry level to practice, and within 20 years to have the master's degree as the entry to clinical practice. Other professions, such as speech therapy, physical therapy, and occupational therapy, have left dental hygiene in the dust, some advancing to the doctoral level as the entry to practice. And here is dental hygiene requiring students to take a minimum of three years of education (or more in some cases) and still granting an associate's degree. These graduates are at a distinct disadvantage, and we continue to allow that to occur. If graduates are not wondering why they are repeatedly shortchanged, at the very least our leaders and educators should be.

What are we missing? Certainly, we all have the intellect to take this initiative and make it a reality. What we lack is a mental vision and the courage to create the programs we need to increase professional socialization skills, and to provide students with the education that will allow them to offer the best possible care to the public they serve. What it requires is a new view of education, its purposes, and the curricular structure that will challenge current paradigms. We need to establish new models for dental hygiene practice and stop teaching students to practice in the antiquated model that currently exists.

I wonder what vision we could create for dental hygiene education if we organized a think tank of dental hygiene leaders and educators, put them in a meeting room for a few days, and told them to forego worrying about accreditation standards, finances, territoriality, political constraints, etc. What would they envision if they could be free to design the dental hygiene entry level program of the future? Rather than focusing on all the reasons why something cannot be achieved, maybe they could examine ways to make this new program a reality.

What I hope most of all is that our profession and my dental hygiene colleagues can find the mental strength to create the vision for their future that allows them to achieve their goals and accept their accomplishments without regrets. Apolo Ohno created his vision as an Olympic champion and succeeded. We need to create our vision and succeed as well!

JoAnn R. Gurenlian, RDH, PhD, is president of Gurenlian & Associates, and provides consulting services and continuing-education programs to health-care providers. She is a graduate program faculty at Idaho State University, adjunct faculty at Burlington County College and Montgomery County College, and president-elect of the International Federation of Dental Hygienists.

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