Leaving Chairside

Sept. 1, 1999
The sentiment is, `I can`t leave dentistry, but...` Plenty of doors remain open for adventures outside of clinical hygiene. Read about these four hygienists who pursued alternatives within the profession.

The sentiment is, `I can`t leave dentistry, but...` Plenty of doors remain open for adventures outside of clinical hygiene. Read about these four hygienists who pursued alternatives within the profession.

Cindy Quinn, RDH

We`ve all encountered dental hygienists who have left clinical care, for one reason or another, to pursue "other interests." And, on the days that you drag yourself home after scaling heroics and office aggravations, you ponder pursuing other interests as well. Admit it. Still, you get up the next morning, hoping the day will be better, because you really like the world of dentistry.

But what about hygienists who enjoy dentistry but, for some reason, have shifted their career focus from clinical care to some other facet of dentistry? As a hygienist who has done just that, I`ve found over the years that there is a certain mystique about hygienists who venture from clinical practice. At dental meetings, I`m frequently asked about making career transitions by fellow hygienists. I`ve discovered that many hygienists want to make a career shift within dentistry, but don`t recognize the value of stored-up assets. Sometimes, they spend only a few hours investigating other options and then abandon their pursuit when the path looks unchartered or rugged.

I`d like to share the insights and decisions that have guided my career so other hygienists contemplating career expansion to another facet of dentistry can gain from it. More importantly, I have interviewed three other hygienists who have practiced hygiene for many years before shifting their careers to the corporate side of dentistry. They explain the unique thoughts and feelings that evolved during their search for an appropriate career transition.

Dental hygiene is a great career with a worthwhile purpose. Though academic programs train you well for clinical delivery of care, use of hygienist`s knowledge and skills beyond patient care is rarely emphasized. On the surface, it appears that one must rely only on self-evaluation to recognize intrinsic talents and acquired skills from clinical practice. Then we figure out how these talents translate to another career. Conversely, clinical care also points out areas of weakness or frustration. An example of this is the hygienist who never stays on schedule and eventually realizes that poor time-management skills are at the root of the problem. Discoveries like these are made only through experience and candid self-assessments.

Hygienists considering a career shift in dentistry often need to create a path to follow because, unlike traditional, heirarchical career progressions, the profession has no upward mobility based upon years of experience or expertise. As demonstrated in the following interviews, each hygienist created her own path only after sizing up her talents and interests, sometimes relying on career tests and counselors for guidance. In a few cases, these hygienists side-stepped in another direction, but used the experience as a cobblestone rather than a boulder in their way. But first, a brief biography of each interviewee is necessary.

A brief sketch

Trisha O`Hehir, RDH, BS, is currently the editor of Perio Reports Newsletter in Flagstaff, Ariz., and a consulting editor for RDH Magazine. Her 28-year career in dentistry has spanned clinical practice in the United States and Switzerland, faculty positions at three universities, lecturing nationally and internationally, and self-employment.

Both Susan Boyden, RDH, BS, MBA, and Phyllis Martina, RDH, BS, MBA, currently work for Hu-Friedy Mfg. Co., Inc. in Chicago. The manufacturer of dental instruments recognizes the value of hygienists in management positions. Susan practiced hygiene for 13 years, worked as an associate product manager at the John O. Butler Co., and then joined Hu-Friedy as a marketing manager two years ago. Phyllis` career spanned teaching at USC dental school, community dental education seminars, and pharmaceutical sales until she assumed current position as a marketing manager after 14 years of clinical practice.

My own career has spanned 22 years in dentistry. After spending 10 years chairside, I worked as a marketing manager at the John O. Butler Co. and MEDEC Dental Communications for an aggregate of more than seven years. I`m now self-employed as a writer and consultant for the dental industry.

In the beginning

Trisha O`Hehir was unaware of her strengths when she began college, but she`d had a desire since she was seven years old to follow in her father`s footsteps and become a detective. She wanted to solve mysteries. At that time, the only women involved in police work were rough and tough, not something her father wanted in the family. Trisha eventually selected dental hygiene as a substitute, mainly because of time spent in the orthodontist`s office during high school. Once out in private practice, it took her exactly one week to fall in love with solving the mystery of why people have disease, and she set her sights on dental school.

Susan Boyden also selected dental hygiene because years spent in the dental chair had created intrigue about dental hygiene, though she`d known early on that health care was in her future. Once she began to see patients, the personal satisfaction of "making a difference" in their health and behavior was very fulfilling.

Phyllis Martina was the only interviewee who actually learned about dental hygiene through a family friend who practiced as a hygienist. Phyllis enjoyed science in high school and recognized that she liked working with people rather than things, so health care seemed logical. But she also was certain that she didn`t want to deal with people`s deaths, which ruled out several options. Dental hygiene was a perfect fit and, indeed, she found the interaction with patients, their friendship, and involvement in the ADHA very satisfying once in practice.

When I selected dental hygiene for a career, it was a haphazard decision, at best. I had never evaluated my talents, researched the advantages or disadvantages of the profession, or spent much time observing a practicing hygienist. In reality, I`d grown up believing that teaching high school students was my destiny. But when I was college-bound, the teaching profession was overloaded and positions were scarce. So dental hygiene became my second choice, only because I`d recently had a prophy and the hygienist had taught me to floss. At least, I reasoned, I could have a chance to teach somebody something! I never realized that teaching from a science textbook was vastly different than flossing instruction - that is, until I began to see patients!

When the honeymoon ended

But at some point, the "honeymoon was over" for each of us. For me, the monotony of patient procedures made the minutes seem like hours after I`d worked full-time for six years. I longed for an outlet for my creativity and my need for constant challenge. So I began to evaluate the Occupational Outlook Handbook at the local junior college. I also took assessment tests offered there, so I could, for the first time in my life, apply my interests, skills, and talents to my next career.

After 18 months, I knew what I wanted. I pursued a business degree with the objective of finding a marketing position in the dental industry. Because of my two-year certificate degree from Northwestern, I essentially had to start over. But part-time dental hygiene, at least, paid the bills. After graduating, I was hired as an assistant marketing manager for the professional division at the John O. Butler Co. for a lower salary than hygiene wages. It was difficult convincing potential dental employers that my diverse background would payoff on the corporate battlefield. Most wanted to give me a sales position, but I was persistent.

I spent two years as an assistant marketing manager and, in that time, the company was acquired by a Japanese conglomerate, re-engineered, my manager resigned, and I almost lived at the office. I`d found an outlet for my creativity and the constant challenge I`d been seeking, but not without a price! Eventually, I was promoted to marketing manager, left the company for a better position with a dental publisher, and was invited to return to Butler after another reorganization. I thrived on the level of responsibility involved and the fact that company executives valued my opinion. Dental hygiene had taught me organizational and communication skills that complemented my technical knowledge in the business environment. I also enjoyed having a human resource department that offered fairness, structure, and benefits to employees.

Trisha O`Hehir saw dentistry as the only avenue for upward mobility. After receiving her dental hygiene degree, she enrolled in night school. Along the way, she accepted a clinical position in Switzerland and, four years later, was offered a teaching position in the first Swiss dental hygiene school. This prompted her return to the United States to complete her bachelor`s degree in higher education at the University of Minnesota. She also taught in the university`s department of periodontology.

After graduation, it was time for dental school, or so O`Hehir thought. In an interview with the dean, she realized that she had the same qualifications for the application process as any high school senior, but none of the hygiene coursework was transferable. She sought the counsel of her adviser who suggested that she had taken enough master`s level courses to jump to a doctorate in instructional systems.

But after only one quarter, she was lured to Arizona by the state`s perio expanded functions program. In time, she realized that her analytical nature and communication skills could merge with her clinical work as a periodontal therapist - as well as her knowledge of expanded functions - to make a difference in dentistry. She meticulously tracked the research on dental disease and developed a loyal following of colleagues who consulted her for advice. This ultimately led to the formation of Perio Reports more than 10 years ago, a monthly newsletter that discusses and evaluates the latest developments in periodontics.

O`Hehir remained in clinical practice for six years after the newsletter was launched, devoting evenings and weekends to it. Now, she practices hygiene only to fill in for someone. She also presents continuing education courses around the world, tapping in to the public skills she has acquired. Over time, she has shifted her focus from treating periodontal disease to actually preventing it. Her latest project is a joint effort with the University of Louisville to establish an International Oral Health Center to gather and disseminate prevention research findings. Though self-employed, O`Hehir says, "I don`t see that I`ve switched careers. It`s just that my goal is now prevention."

Although Susan Boyden felt the satisfaction of changing patient behaviors as a result of home care education, the difficulty of motivating patients was much more challenging than expected. After a couple of years in practice, she knew that more education would be necessary to get more variety and challenge in her career, as well as an opportunity to "climb the ladder." She began the long journey of part-time school, completing a business degree and an MBA over a 10-year time span. Boyden believes the time spent with patients developed her ability to get ideas across to diverse people and to evaluate things on a larger scale, skills that are essential for a business professional.

The most disappointing aspect of dental hygiene for Phyllis Martina were her limited options. As she states, "After many years of building my credentials through seminars and teaching, I was essentially still doing the same thing on the last day I practiced as I did on the first day." Being a Type A personality, she realized that the one way to make progress was to leave clinical care. She longed for additional responsibilities and challenge and had a secondary interest in health insurance and benefits that were not provided by most dental offices.

From practicing hygiene, she`d developed strong interpersonal and presentation skills that she wanted to use. But where and how? She spoke to career counselors, attended seminars, took the Myers/Briggs Personality Test, and read "What Color Is Your Parachute?" to find the answer. This personal analysis and additional education took two years but, with MBA in hand, she joined Hu-Friedy in 1995.

If they could do it over

In some ways, the career path of each hygienist was similar. Most struggled with the need for an additional challenge beyond clinical care. All returned to college for more education, requiring a sacrifice of time, energy, and money. Each knew more about themselves after working with patients and recognized acquired skills that could transcend clinical care to the business arena.

I asked each hygienist what they wish they would have known about their career 10 years ago, and they had very definite, though different, answers. O`Hehir wished she had known how to write and follow a business plan prior to plunging into self-employment. Boyden wished she had been cautioned to expect change at every corner, because that`s what happens in business. Product managers must wear many different hats throughout each day, which is vastly different from a dental hygiene "specialist."

Martina would like to have known the value of business skills 10 years ago, because she feels that perspective would have improved her understanding of practice operations. It also would have equipped her to negotiate benefits and raises using facts rather than emotion.

For myself, I wish someone would have pulled me aside and explained the hours, tenacity, and endurance required to find a corporate position in dentistry and to gain the respect of an entire company. It`s a lot tougher than clinical practice, but well worth it.

Finally, all of the hygienists had the same advice for readers who may be considering a career expansion. Talk to as many people as you can and establish at least one mentor, perhaps within the dental school faculty. Keep your mind open to several possibilities and learn all that you can about them. All this takes far more effort, time, and energy than you think; but you`ll find your passion and never look back!

Cindy Quinn, RDH, BS, is president of CreativAtions in Tucson, Ariz., which provides marketing services to dental manufacturers.