Apathy or action?

Dec. 1, 2006
“Dental Hygiene is a dying profession.” Those were the exact words spoken by my friend and fellow dental hygienist, and she was serious.

“Dental Hygiene is a dying profession.” Those were the exact words spoken by my friend and fellow dental hygienist, and she was serious. We were discussing the recent veto action by California Governor Schwartzenegger on a bill that established a Dental Hygiene Board. A state as progressive as California is denying us the ability to regulate our own profession. Although the bill was passed by both the senate and the assembly, the California Dental Association requested a veto from the governor, stating the bill was unnecessary. The veto was granted, proving once again who is in control of our careers.

There is more than one theory for the demise of dental hygiene. My friend suggests that it can be directly linked to the recent surge of greed in organized dentistry. In her opinion, dentists decided they deserved to make as much as physicians and lawyers. One obstacle in the way of higher income for the dentists is the wages of the hygienists. So it makes perfect sense to hire less educated personnel to perform dental hygiene services. I have worked with many fine dentists who do not follow that thought process (or at least they don’t admit it), so there must be a better explanation.

While I believe organized dentistry has a hand in holding back the progress of our profession, most of the blame for our decline in status can be placed on us. Too many of us report each workday and do our job. We tell our neighbors and associates about our job and the important services we provide. Every now and then the word career replaces job, but essentially we do a job, and that is dental hygiene. Until this thinking changes and every dental hygienist has a career or, better yet, is in the profession of dental hygiene, the slow but certain “dying” will continue.

According to ERI Online Business Definitions (www.eridlc.com), a job is “the defined duties a person performs for pay.” That is the entire definition. No mention of commitment to the task at hand, continuing education, or career involvement. Merely having a job in dental hygiene is not personally satisfying and is a fast route to burnout. Just showing up and doing the assigned work is a threat to our profession. If we can’t show that we care about the future of dental hygiene, why should the dentist or our patients care? In my opinion, once you make the decision to pursue a career in dental hygiene, you have given up the right to have just a job.

My definition of career is one step above job. In a career, a person plans to progress, to move up the ladder, so to speak. A career entails change, not a stagnant job that remains the same year after year. The career-minded individual assumes the future will bring more responsibility, more pay, and more satisfaction. Having a career in dental hygiene is a leap above showing up for a job.

This column has previously carried the message of recognizing ourselves as a profession. While no two bodies seem to agree on the definition of profession, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission description seems most appropriate. In reads, in part, “A disciplined group of individuals who adhere to high ethical standards and uphold themselves to, and are accepted by, the public as possessing special knowledge and skills ... derived from education and training at a high level, and who are prepared to exercise this knowledge and these skills in the interest of others.” This definition relies heavily on the idea of responsibility for the health and safety of the public, an almost perfect description of dental hygiene and exactly what we need to be projecting in our practice.

Since I am not ready to accept my involvement in a dying profession, we need to consider methods of resuscitation. As cliché as it may sound, we need to conjure up all our positive energy before it’s too late. Let’s start with our own attitude adjustments and then share those new and improved attitudes with colleagues, co-workers and the general public. As a group we can save our declining career status, despite those who oppose us.

Getting out the message that we are health-care providers is vital to the survival of our profession. While some forms of advertising are very expensive, there are ways to be heard without breaking the bank. Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper. Recent news about xylitol and the periodontal/systemic health link are perfect as launching pads for letters and comments. Offering to do a presentation at a school or community center is another chance to educate the public. I have considered printing up a short definition of dental hygienist and adding it to patients’ take-home bags. Brainstorm with co-workers or study group members to come up with your own advertising and education plan.

Joining our professional organization is important in assuring that dental hygiene will be a career option for future generations. Other organizations are strong and achieve their goals because they have a unified body to act on their behalf. It should be a source of pride to be a member of the ADHA. Numbers speak loudly, and unfortunately our numbers are yelling apathy. This apathy is apparent to those who make the laws and regulations that pertain to our future. I have thought long and hard for good reasons for not joining our association, and I cannot come up with even one that makes sense. Each of us can be part of the solution, even if our commitment does not go beyond paying dues.

Let’s do away with all jobs in dental hygiene. Simply showing up and fulfilling your duties before leaving is not the way to a satisfying career, or life for that matter. Write a career plan for the next one to three years, and put it someplace where you will see it often. Strive every week to share your vision of oral health care with at least one person outside of dentistry. Future RDHs, the public and dentistry deserve our best effort to keep the profession alive. There are two sides to the edge this month - apathy or action. Where will you jump? RDH

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].