Reflecting on your career choice

July 1, 2004
If you removed the references to licensure and the educational requirements from a classified ad for dental hygienists, how many millions of people would sit up a little straighter and quickly circle that ad?

by Mark Hartley

If you removed the references to licensure and the educational requirements from a classified ad for dental hygienists, how many millions of people would sit up a little straighter and quickly circle that ad? My wild guess would be four, as in four million.

When you put a positive spin on it, dental hygiene sounds like a wonderful way to earn income. Self-motivated individual wanted for position that offers full-time pay for part-time hours.

The flexibility of the career seems to be the recurring theme whenever a dental hygienist starts bubbling over with enthusiasm. Even the "full-time" status of 32 hours a week sounds intriguing to folks who have to work a minimum of 40 hours. And we all know there are more than a few hygienists who earn $30,000 to $40,000 a year by working even less than 32 hours a week.

Want to have a child? Best wishes to you — just keep the licensure updated for whenever you're ready to come back. Want to leisurely travel around the world? Plan far enough ahead, and you can probably pull it off. Remember, most of the folks reading the classified ad would find it difficult, even in a best-case scenario, to take long "sabbaticals" with any sort of a blessing from an employer. However, dental hygienists can disappear for a while and then return fairly easily when the time is right.

On top of it, the flexibility is just the icing on the cake in a work environment that often includes enriching lifelong relationships with patients and colleagues.

The negative spin starts as soon as the full employment ad is printed. It takes gumption to pursue and achieve a dental hygiene education, nerves of steel to acquire licensure. Most of the four million would just "x" through the ad at this point — too much preparatory work needed before the résumé is even submitted.

In my mind, of course, the negative spin also involves your stationary position and repetitive motions. While the fellow licensed dental professional in an office bops around from operatory to operatory performing a variety of restorative procedures, the dental hygienist typically performs the same procedures all day long. The risks for associated physical ailments are high. The potential to keep up the pace over the span of a 40-year career is somewhat limited.

As a profession, we're just getting started in addressing the ergonomic issues involved with dental hygiene. Other industries that are based on a workforce performing repetitive motions are much further along, and the employers generally are more accountable for occupational illnesses than dentists. Dental hygiene is one of the few professions where the practitioner can be washed-up long before he or she is ready to call it quits.

The best person to write the contents of a classified ad for a dental hygienist would be you. Last fall, many of you took the time to participate in a Career Assessment Survey that was a collaborative effort between Christine Hovliaras-Delozier and RDH. The results of the survey appear on page 18. RDH readers shared many insights about the career of dental hygiene. There's a high degree of satisfaction with the career choice, but there's also a persistent yearning to make the profession more versatile.

When I'm asked about what dental hygiene needs, I will sometimes quip (depending on who asked the question), "About 30,000 men."

The dark truth behind that humor does not allude to any belief that female dental hygienists are damsels in distress, needing a strong male to ride to the rescue. It also does not allude to any notion that men would be better at rendering care. If we could find a researcher with too much time on his or her hands, I'm quite comfortable preparing myself for the eventual finding that women typically are superior dental hygienists. The 30,000 males would not even constitute a majority of dental hygienists. But they would represent a significant minority, which I think would bring a balance to the profession that seems to be missing at times. When I think of the progressive industries of 2004, I marvel at the way men and women work together to achieve great results. The two genders need each other's perspectives.

Everybody's got an opinion about the "career" of dental hygiene. What's yours? If you were one of the readers who participated in the Career Assessment Survey, thank you for doing so.

Mark Hartley is the editor of RDH. He can be contacted at [email protected].