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Knock, Knock. Should you open the door to other opportunities in dental hygiene?

Nov. 19, 2015
Should you open the door to other opportunities in dental hygiene?

By Diane Paz, RDH, MEd, DBH

Someone once said that when one door closes, another one opens. This either means that your house is haunted, or that perhaps it's time to reassess where you are in your life and profession. If you choose the latter, how do you know if it's time to move on from what's become comfortable and stable? When faced with this dilemma, it's imperative to understand that as hygienists, we're valuable both in the clinical setting as well as in alternative environments. There can be more to life than what you're comfortable with if you choose to look outside your comfort zone and spend some time thinking about what you want to achieve and how.

The first step is to evaluate your current setting. For some, dental hygiene is a job, not a career. The satisfaction is often immediate. Patients come in and leave in a better state of oral health than when they arrived. The salary is steady and you're usually out of the office by a set time. For many, this is the result of hard work and schooling, and there is often no desire to go beyond this level of employment.

Do your leaders fuel the passion?

What about those of you who don't feel that your passion is fully realized in this environment? You need to evaluate what you will or will not settle for. What was acceptable as a new graduate may not necessarily satisfy your goals and aspirations as a seasoned dental practitioner. A good place to begin is to determine if you're comfortable with the leadership in your current setting. Are there opportunities for you to take on leadership roles? It is crucial to define the difference between management and leadership. Warren G. Bennis said, "Managers do things right. Leaders do the right thing."


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In other words, does your leader, whether the dentist, office manager, or department chairperson, do what's best for you and your patients, not just the organization in which you're employed? An example might be in the education setting. As an instructor, there are criteria established for each assignment. What if a student has a passion for something that falls outside of the original assignment and asks that she be allowed to pursue a slightly different approach to the original task? A manager might look at this as "not following the rules or not doing what's right," whereas a leader would allow the student the opportunity to advance her learning in a slightly different manner.

Is this doing things right or is it doing the right thing? Obviously your leader needs to manage as well as lead, but it's critical that the person knows how to do both. Does the leader allow you to use your talents in ways that promote your growth as well as contribute to the growth of the practice? What about communication? Are you comfortable sharing your ideas, and are they valued and explored? These are certainly worth consideration when contemplating a career or job change.

If you want to look outside your current environment, where do you start? Are your skills up to date? If you're interested in using your talents in a nontraditional setting, will you need more schooling? More and older Americans are heading back to school, and their rate of enrollment is rising faster than students of typical college age. In 2009, students age 25 and older accounted for roughly 40% of all college and graduate students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That figure is expected to rise to 43% by 2020 as 9.6 million older students head to campus (Holland, 2014).

In addition, don't be afraid to approach an organization and promote yourself, even if there's no actual job posting. Use networking to your advantage. If you have friends in nursing, ask if the hospital might be interested in having an oral health educator on staff. Are you interested in teaching but the local dental hygiene programs are not hiring? Try private schools. Developing and implementing a public health sealant program may not provide the immediate gratification that some people seek, but the result of this population health improvement focus may fulfill your need to meet the goal of the triple aim, which is to provide access to care, patient satisfaction, and lower costs.

In the same vein, perhaps you see yourself as an oral health educator working with women, infants, and children (WIC), or at an alternative high school that allows pregnant or new moms to take courses to earn a high school diploma. Where does your passion fall? It does not need to be confined to a traditional operatory. The options are endless. The goal is to not allow yourself to get stuck in a rut. When that occurs, no one wins - the employer, the patients, or you.

Making a change in your employment situation can be stressful and exhilarating at the same time. Be sure to plan your finances before you make a change. Often, benefits and pay periods may cause a temporary lull in revenue, so plan accordingly. Also, be sure to take care of yourself during the transition. Eat well and stay rested. Stress will be inevitable, but deep breathing, meditation, or other methods that work for you in times of change will help you embark on your new career.

A final thought. Don't ever regret the journey you've been on. It makes you who you are. The reason for changing your career path is to allow you to tap into new areas of yourself that you haven't been in touch with for a while. Dental hygiene allows us to use our skills as teachers, counselors, and consultants, among many other talents. The goal is to reach beyond the clinical operatory and explore school settings, nursing homes, hospitals, government jobs, commission corps, text book authors ... the list goes on. Don't settle. RDH

Dr. Diane Paz earned her CDA and RDH from Phoenix College, and her BSDH, expanded functions, and master's degree in education from Northern Arizona University. She earned her doctorate of behavioral health from Arizona State University. Dr. Paz is a former associate clinical professor at Northern Arizona University, and can be reached at [email protected]


1. Holland K. (2014). Back to school: Older students on the rise in college classrooms. Retrieved from http://www.nbcnews.com/business/business-news/back-school-older-students-rise-college-classrooms-n191246.
2. Ledlow G, Coppola N. (2014). Leadership for health professionals: Theory, skills, and application. Burlington, MA. Jones & Bartlett Learning.