by Lynne H. Slim RDH, BSDH,

Dental hygiene as a profit center

Nov. 1, 2010
I've racked my brain about how to begin this topic. I finally just decided to "let 'er rip, and let it fly," like the Dixie Chicks sing.
I've racked my brain about how to begin this topic. I finally just decided to "let 'er rip, and let it fly," like the Dixie Chicks sing. My plea to others who think they understand our profession is - we are oral health-care professionals, not salespeople, and we don't want to be treated as a profit center. There's a lot you don't understand about us, and it's time to set the record straight.

Last month I wrote about Dr. Charles Blair, a leading practice management consultant and good friend of dental hygiene. I drove to Greensboro, N.C., to hear him speak a second time, and his data speaks volumes about what's working and what's going terribly wrong in dental practices today. Since this is a periodontal therapy column, I'll focus on periodontal procedures, but I also want to make some general comments about the state of our profession.

The incidence of periodontal disease ranges from 30% of the population in developed countries to over 70% of the population in developing countries. Severe periodontal disease afflicts 7% to 15% of the population worldwide. Dr. Blair pointed out that in his home state of North Carolina, an average of only three periodontal procedures are performed in a general dental practice in one year. I agree with Dr. Blair about why periodontal disease is undiagnosed, undertreated, and under referred in general dental practices, and the reasons are too numerous to mention here. I address these issues when I'm hired as a consultant, and this particular issue in dental hygiene departments is usually the result of a combination of problems.

What really gets my goat is when I hear others talk about dental hygienists as salespeople. Since when did the dental hygiene curriculum include how to make a sales pitch for restorative dentistry? When practice management consultants meddle in the affairs of health-care professionals who are licensed to deliver preventive oral health-care services, they don't understand that our orientation isn't that of a salesperson or restorative dentist. We are caring professionals who want to improve our patients' health. Our commitment is to professional excellence and a seamless continuum of oral health care for the lifetime of the patient. Hygienists are sometimes called dental nurses. Like medical nurses, our job is to provide patient care. Medical nurses aren't expected to sell medical procedures and neither should dental nurses.

The U.S. private practice model needs to be modified to include a dental hygiene department that recognizes the contributions of dental hygienists in a different way. We need to develop a new dental hygiene model that recognizes the appropriate role of dental hygienists in a clinical practice. We need to do a better job of making dentists aware of just how valuable dental hygienists are. Like the nursing profession, we should start educating dentists, consultants, and others about the true value of dental hygienists in private practice settings. These points could include:

  • Expertise in oral health prevention and wellness, including nonsurgical periodontal therapy.
  • Professional education and licensure in accredited dental hygiene programs to ensure a level of competency and standard of care on par with other health-care professionals.
  • Public trust of dental hygienists as a direct result of high professional standards.
  • Excellence in building relationships with patients.
We need to get rid of the stereotypes of the omnipotent dentist and the subservient dental hygienist. We must work hard to define the next level of the relationship, and it should include a synergistic approach to patient care. When practice management coaching is needed, why not focus on providing dental hygienists with the equipment and assistance they need for clinical excellence and healthy patient outcomes?

My emotions run wild when I address this topic, and as a result I've set "Let 'er Rip" as a ringtone in my new smart phone. The lyrics say: "Don't take all day and night, let 'er rip, let it fly." Let's not let economic forces and some commercial interests determine our professional destiny.

Lynne Slim, RDH, BSDH, MSDH, is an award-winning writer who has published extensively in dental/dental hygiene journals. Lynne is the CEO of Perio C Dent, a dental practice management company that specializes in the incorporation of conservative periodontal therapy into the hygiene department of dental practices. Lynne is also the owner and moderator of the periotherapist yahoo group: Lynne speaks on the topic of conservative periodontal therapy and other dental hygiene-related topics. She can be reached at [email protected] or

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