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Left-handed, right state of mind

Oct. 17, 2021
Being left-handed adds an interesting twist on life. Being a left-handed dental hygienist makes things that much more interesting! Bethany Montoya, RDH, has tips to help left-handers improve their work areas, ergonomically.

If you’re a lefty like me, you know the struggle of writing in a spiral-bound notebook, using right-handed scissors, or having a shiny layer of graphite smeared on the side of your hand from all the pencil writing you did during your elementary school years. Teachers or family members may have tried to retrain your hand dominance in the hopes that you would join the right-handed crowd, but they realized over time that your brain had a hardwired affinity for your left hand.

I was lucky enough to attend a dental hygiene school that had two clinical operatories equipped for left-handed students—one for me and one for my classmate, Grace. After graduation, however, finding a dental practice that was lefty-friendly was a challenge. I’ve learned how important it is to find an office where you can work comfortably as a hygienist with your natural hand preference; otherwise, you may be setting yourself up for years of unnecessary pain and frustration. Here are some recommendations to consider if you are practicing as a left-handed hygienist.

The interview

When interviewing for a position, it’s always best to mention your left-handedness early in the discussion. Your interviewing dentist or office administrator will be able to offer input on what measures can be taken to ensure that you are comfortable, should you accept a working interview. Sometimes there is a certain operatory in the office that is known for being more friendly to left-handed clinicians, and the team can help make sure you are set up for success before you arrive to see your first patient. It never hurts to ask your interviewer if you can walk around the hygiene operatory to see for yourself if you’ll be able to arrange the room to suit your ergonomic needs. I have found that interviewers sometimes assume that any room can be rearranged for a left-handed individual, but realistically, this is not always the case.

Know your “adjustables”

As you are scoping out the operatory for simple accommodations, make sure you are familiar with some of the most common ones. Many patients’ chairs these days have either a latch or foot petal that will allow you to swivel the chair to the left or right. This is a great option when there is limited space for you to sit in the 12 o’clock position during patient care. Don’t be embarrassed to ask someone to show you where to find this latch, as location can vary depending on the chair manufacturer. Additionally, any arm-mounted equipment—such as the tray, air/water syringe, polishing handpiece, or overhead light—can be rotated to the right side of the patient’s chair for easy access. As more offices are transitioning to cordless handpiece options, they can offer improved accessibility no matter which side of the chair you’re sitting on.

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Make yourself at home

Once you accept a position, your new team will probably encourage you to organize the room so you can work most comfortably and efficiently. If they don’t, it wouldn’t hurt to ask! Moving your disposable supplies, such as suction tips, gauze, and prophy paste, to the left side of the operatory will make your day flow more smoothly and prevent you from having to make unnecessary trips to the opposite side of the room throughout your working hours. Keeping your sterile instruments within arm’s reach is also helpful; you never know when you might need something. If there is only one clinician chair in the operatory, you might ask if there is an extra one to keep on each side of the patient to prevent you from having to move yours from side to side for doctor exams. Keep a mental note of instances where you repeatedly return to the opposite side of the room; relocating something small such as the blood pressure cuff can be a game changer!

Talk it out

If you find yourself feeling achy or discouraged after working in an operatory that isn’t accommodating your ergonomic needs, take the opportunity to communicate with your employer. Many left-handed clinicians feel nervous about being viewed as high maintenance by addressing their challenges, but a supportive team will want to help you find a solution. If there is a specific product or idea that you feel would improve your left-handed accessibility, bring it to your doctor or practice administrator so you can get feedback and help make your idea a reality. I have found that it’s much easier to get the support you need when you come to the discussion with research you’ve done and a plan to make things happen.

Don’t punish yourself

Sometimes, despite your efforts and communication, a lefty-friendly environment can’t be achieved. Years ago, I interviewed at an office that was cozy, mature, and well decorated. The dentist and his team were very kind and welcoming. The hygiene room, however, was tight and strictly designed for a right-handed clinician. The patient chair did not swivel, the countertop was small, there were no cabinets on the left side of the room, and there was no space for me to even roll in a cart to keep my supplies close. Still, I accepted a working interview because I liked the office. By the end of the first day, my back was noticeably sore. I asked if I could extend the working interview and by the end of the second day, nearly all my joints hurt from maintaining an unnatural posture in the right-handed operatory.

I talked with the doctor and expressed my concerns. With the unique design of the hygiene room, creating a space that would accommodate me would involve some very drastic structural changes; it simply wasn’t a realistic option. I decided that as much as I liked the office, my health and comfort would need to come first. I never had an experience like that again, but it taught me not to try to force something that’s not meant to be.

Being left-handed adds an interesting twist to life. Being a left-handed hygienist makes things that much more interesting! Remember that your peace of mind and comfort are two very important keys to having a long, fulfilling career in dentistry. I hope you take every opportunity to use your creativity and adaptive traits to improve your workplace and the world around you. Best wishes!

Editor's note: This article appeared in the October 2021 print edition of RDH.

Bethany Montoya, RDH, is a practicing dental hygienist with nearly 10 years of clinical experience. She has advanced knowledge and training in complex cosmetic dentistry, sleep-disordered breathing, TMJ disorders, and implant dentistry. She is highly experienced in productive hygiene and has achieved successes in hygiene diagnosis and acceptance that have far exceeded the industry standard. Over the course of her career, she has discovered a passion for leadership, building team culture, communication, and accountability. She has devoted her most recent years to focusing on the personal and relationship aspects of dentistry through her latest project, Human RDH. She can be reached at [email protected].

About the Author

Bethany Montoya, BAS, RDH

Bethany Montoya, BAS, RDH, is a practicing dental hygienist, editorial director of DentistryIQ's Clinical Insights newsletter and a key opinion leader. She has advanced knowledge and training in complex cosmetic dentistry, dental sleep medicine, and implant dentistry. Recently, she has devoted her time to dentistry’s personal and interpersonal aspects through her social media brand, @humanrdh. Contact Bethany at [email protected].

Updated February 6, 2024