Terms of diminishment

June 1, 2002
Some of the words associated with our profession just make me cringe. The one that tops the list is "cleaning." Here is a short list of the variations that make me start clenching my own teeth:

Some of the words associated with our profession just make me cringe. The one that tops the list is "cleaning." Here is a short list of the variations that make me start clenching my own teeth:

• I'm just going to clean your teeth.
• It's time for your cleaning and checkup.
• It's only a cleaning.
• You are overdue for your cleaning.
• You need to get your teeth cleaned.

No matter how you dance around this word or try to dress it up with fancy modifiers, it does not represent what dental hygienists really do. We are not well-paid, college educated, cleaning machines. We are professionals providing diverse complex health care services that include comprehensive dental health assessments, gathering or generating diagnostic information, and providing necessary preventive and therapeutic procedures.

The above definition of dental hygiene sounds a lot more reflective of how hygienists practice. The term cleaning diminishes our value. It affects how we feel about ourselves, how our employer and co-workers view us professionally and how our patients feel about us.

Each one of us possesses the ability to change the lives of our patients for the better, and we also can have an extraordinary impact on each other professionally. My friend, Pam Mecagni, RDH, wrote an intriguing post on the Web site, www.amyrdh.com. Pam noticed a change in the tonsillar pillar region of a patient she sees every three months. Rather than dismiss this finding, she and her doctor encouraged the patient to seek an evaluation from an oral surgeon. The patient subsequently was referred to his primary care physician, then to an ENT, and finally to an oncologist.

It took three weeks for this man to wind his way through the health care system. The lesion was malignant and had spread to the lymph nodes. It was removed immediately, along with a significant amount of surrounding tissue. Part of the patient's chest muscle was used to reconstruct his lower jaw. The surgery was followed by six weeks of radiation therapy. If Pam had defaulted to a "teeth-cleaning" mode would she have taken the time to do an oral cancer screening? Her alertness and caring have prolonged this man's life.

Pam shared her thoughts with us in the following way: "He was just so grateful that I had saved his life. We have an awesome responsibility. It is very humbling to know that if I had been too busy or too rushed to do a thorough oral cancer screening, he may have died! What if I had thought, I see him every three months, how much could anything have changed? Now I know. Let's never forget how much our patients count on us to do the right thing."

I also altered a patient's life recently, although not as dramatically. Elyssa is a very quiet, cute single woman in her 30s. Even though she has been a regular patient in our practice for seven years, my first appointment with her was last June. Elyssa had suffered from migraine headaches and a stiff neck for a long time. And, many years ago, she had been fitted for an occlusal guard. Occlusal guards are a big soapbox item for me. In my mind they are like a seat belt and air bag for the teeth. You never know when you'll need them to avoid a wreck. During her appointment, I discussed the importance of wearing her guard every night.

Elyssa had recently scheduled an appointment with me. In preparation for her visit that day, I reviewed all of my notes from last June, including the entry that discussed the importance of wearing her guard every night.

As soon as she was seated, I began the health history review and then inquired about her occlusal guard. Elyssa reported that she had worn the guard faithfully every night for the past eight months as I had encouraged. She has not had one headache since our visit, and the neck pain and soreness have disappeared! She was astonished at the enormous benefits she derived from wearing the guard every night and was amazed that such a simple change could alter her life in such a positive way.

Pam wrote that she found her experience humbling. I felt the same way. I am sure that each one of you has had similar experiences. We can have a profound impact on another person's life during a dental hygiene appointment. Pam's actions saved a life, while mine ended needless suffering. Actions like this are so much more than a "cleaning." Even the word prophylaxis pales as a descriptor of what we do during our time with a patient.

My favorite replacement for the dreaded "c" word is dental hygiene visit. My friend Karen Steuve, RDH, calls it an oral health visit. One of my patients even suggested using the phrase oral or dental health maintenance visit. Are any of these the perfect terms for what we really do? They certainly come closer to describing the care that we really provide for our patients than the words we are so accustomed to using. Reconfigure the words and phrases any way you want, but let's figure out how we can elevate ourselves professionally, rather than wallowing in the terms of diminishment. Discovering a more descriptive term will keep us all in the Comfort Zone.

Anne Nugent Guignon, RDH, MPH, practices clinical dental hygiene in Houston, Texas. She writes, speaks, and presents continuing- education courses on ergonomics and advanced ultrasonic instrumentation through her company, ErgoSonics (www.ergosonics.com). She can be reached by phone at (713) 974-4540 or by e-mail at [email protected].