Define ‘dental hygiene’

July 1, 2006
I recently challenged several colleagues, friends and family members to describe dental hygiene in one word.

I recently challenged several colleagues, friends and family members to describe dental hygiene in one word. The answers were predictable, yet thought provoking. I was surprised at the number of “scaling” or “prophy” responses. Those who know anything about me know those responses send a chill up my spine. As a profession, we have moved beyond scaling. Yet, even I must admit the act of scaling does take up a good portion of my clinical time.

Scaling is an action enabling us to reach a goal. So while I agree it is a word that describes dental hygiene, it is not the best word. Following exploring, hand scaling is usually the first clinical skill we learn in school. No one can forget that first time they felt subgingival calculus and removed the amazing black chunk. What a thrill! Even I get a sense of accomplishment every now and then to see the black rocks fly out of the pocket, but for most of us it was an initial one time high. Like riding a bike, after that first solo down the sidewalk, it becomes routine.

The second most popular response was education, an answer I agree with. After all the scaling we do, it is the patient who must maintain the results on a daily basis. A huge part of our responsibility is educating patients to carry out home maintenance. Education is also one of the most difficult tasks of dental hygiene.

Flexibility is essential to providing patient education. While we may agree that demonstrating home care technique in the patient’s mouth is the best way to teach proper brushing, flossing, etc., some folks don’t do well watching the show in their mouth through a mirror. Functioning in mirror image is second nature to dental professionals, but do you remember how hard it was to perfect that talent?

We find out early in our dental hygiene education that learning is achieved through different methods. Some people learn from reading information in a pamphlet, and others pick up the proper technique from pictures. Children often respond to a video presentation of home care instructions. For the best teaching success, combine auditory, visual and repetition in each presentation. Recognize cues from your patients to determine if they comprehend the information, then tailor the experience to meet their needs. After all is said and done, success is dependent on a person’s willingness to learn and apply knowledge.

The most interesting response to my inquiry was “burnout.” Often seen as a negative answer, burnout can signal the beginning of a great career. There is no better way to spur change than discontent. Burnout can lead someone to seek out others who share their feelings, or better yet, find those who show them a path back to career satisfaction.

My own burnout led me to an e-mail list, where I planned to share my complaints and see who I could annoy. Some people call it whining, but I prefer to call it “self-administered therapy.” I found a few sympathetic folks who shared my discontent. More importantly, a select few challenged me to take action. The response that caught me off guard was, “So, what are you going to do now?” Someone dared suggest I was in control of my own career destiny. That prompting created a desire within me to act. Burnout may turn out to be the high point of my career.

The most disturbing answers I received were “dentist wannabe” and “prima donna.” These clearly are not answers from dental hygienists as neither is only one word. However, it is important to address the reasons for these perceptions. There is a simple solution for a dentist wannabe. Become one!

Prima donna is a negative description that has stuck with hygienists through the ages. No matter how hard we try to get along with our coworkers and be team players, this derogatory term is still used. My only suggestion is to be kind and persistent. Don’t act like a princess and you will know the title is not earned.

My favorite response was “bugs,” which I will group with bacteria and assume participants were not talking about ants and spiders. Bugs are the main target of all we do in dental hygiene. Among all the systemic and anatomical contributing factors, the one constant in disease is bugs. Scaling disturbs bacteria, and education helps the patient maintain a beneficial balance of good vs. bad bacteria.

We must teach our patients that bacteria are the cause of periodontal disease. Bacteria can be the most fun aspect of patient education. There are few things more exciting than discussing the life cycle of common oral bacteria.

You can use charts, illustrations and even intraoral demonstrations to let patients know where the bugs hide. We need to get the public excited about bacteria.

No survey would be complete without a word from the person on the street, or in this case, the kid in the house. My youngest son did not hesitate to respond to my inquiry with “disgusting.”

Jake does not look at my pictures of biofilm and decay with the same enthusiasm as I do. He sees filth and rotten teeth. The boy has probably heard me complain one too many times about scraping Oreo fragments from furry teeth. I’m sure the poster of oral lesions hanging above my computer doesn’t help his perception of the profession, either. Another of my children who has heard me complain one too many times answered my survey with “tedious.”

I am almost ashamed to admit I have uttered this word more than once when describing my day at the office. But tedious became a word of the past when treatment philosophy letters, remineralization protocol and writing this column became part of my career development.

My favorite reply came from my daughter’s boyfriend. He either listens better than my own offspring, or he is more adept at sucking up. He thought about an answer for a moment and then said “foundation.” I’d like to think he has heard my speech on periodontal health being the foundation for all good dentistry. Or perhaps he was alluding to the idea that the hygiene department is the foundation for a great practice. In reality, he probably meant my dental hygiene paycheck is the foundation for his girlfriend’s meals and living quarters.

My own response is “profession.” Dental hygiene is a profession - my profession. It is time we all take that realization to heart and attempt to protect our chosen profession. Many people do not realize we are a profession and not just the “cleaning people.” In fact, many dentists and fellow hygienists do not realize our status as a profession. It is up to each and every one of us to get the message out that we are a group of health-care professionals who will not be quiet. If we do not demand respect, I guarantee you nobody is going to hand it over freely.

Whatever your response is to the one-word challenge, make sure it is heard. Do not sit idly by and let others decide how you feel in the role of dental hygienist. Be loud and be proud.