Who We Are

Oct. 1, 1999
When I was in my second year of dental hygiene school, I remember standing at a bus stop near the health sciences complex, proudly wearing my stiff, white uniform. A woman who was also waiting for the bus asked, "Are you in nursing?" I replied, "Dental hygiene." Already jaded to the ways of the dental phobic public, I knew what she would say next: "Eeew! How can you stand to put your finger in someone else`s mouth?"

The best person to spruce up how the public perceives you is you.

Cathleen Terhune Alty, RDH

When I was in my second year of dental hygiene school, I remember standing at a bus stop near the health sciences complex, proudly wearing my stiff, white uniform. A woman who was also waiting for the bus asked, "Are you in nursing?" I replied, "Dental hygiene." Already jaded to the ways of the dental phobic public, I knew what she would say next: "Eeew! How can you stand to put your finger in someone else`s mouth?"

Much to my surprise, her face brightened. "Oh, how interesting! What a fascinating major! I`ll bet it`s pretty difficult."

"Yes, it has been so far," I replied, surprised and somewhat relieved for her understanding attitude.

"Of course!" she sympathized. "I`ll bet your major requires all those health courses like anatomy and physiology ... and I bet you take a ton of psychology courses!"

Grateful for her interest, I added, "Anything to help motivate patients to use floss!"

A puzzled look crossed her face, then she threw her head back in a laugh, "Oh! I thought you said mental hygiene! But you are in dental hygiene!" After a mutual chuckle, she raised an eyebrow and said, "How can you stand putting your fingers in someone else`s mouth?"

Promoting the dental hygiene profession is a twofold proposition: It requires a public relations campaign to explain who we are, what we do, and what credentials we have for doing these things and then elevating the profession through a positive legislative "promotion."

Our public relations campaign is the first step. Dental hygienists are often seen in the public eye as I was in the above anecdote - having wet fingers and a strong constitution. In the press, we are often depicted as fluffy-haired bimbos or ignored completely. Our patients may even lump us into being just "one of the girls" at the dental office. Even within our own profession, some hygienists lack the vision to see their job as a true profession and refuse opportunities to learn and grow.

The public, the press, our patients, and some of our peers are severely lacking information about what it means to be a professional dental hygienist. We can`t allow anyone else to do this public relations job for us, especially organized dentistry, or we risk being misrepresented. We have to do it ourselves, the way we do it best: one person at a time.

We should never underestimate the power of a captive audience. Of course, the sharp instruments add a bit of anxiety, but, nonetheless, patients usually do listen when we talk. And patient education can be a lot more than toothbrushing instructions.

"It all begins at the chair," says Virginia Woodward, RDH, an ADHA past-president, U.S. congressional and Kentucky state senate candidate. "In politics, we talk about the importance of grassroots politics and how nothing - direct mail, commercials, or radio ads - can replace the direct one-on-one contact between the candidate and the voter. It`s no different with dental hygiene. Define yourself as a professional, much more than a cleaning lady. The public wants the very best person delivering its care. Your patients have learned to trust you, and they will listen when you talk. Few professions have the one-to-one, undivided attention that we have."

Woodward also reminds us that every patient in the chair has influence on our profession. "You need a global perspective," says Woodward. "A global perspective allows you to see that everything is interconnected."

Examples of these connections are apparent in our vast array of patients. Some patients may be legislators with whom we can share our expertise. Some patients are in the media and may enjoy hearing information about the challenges of our profession. Some patients are potential dental hygienists who need to know the benefits of a career in our profession. All patients are potential voters who may welcome a briefing on dental hygiene legislation.

This circle of influence can be stretched even further when you see that you can talk about dental hygiene issues everywhere: at school, church, social functions, etc. Of course, all this "hygiene talk" doesn`t need to be as incessant as it sounds. It`s just that too many of us don`t open our mouths at all.

"It`s easy to feel overwhelmed personally and think, `Oh, this is just my little thing.` But it really does make a difference," said Woodward. "Change is inevitable. But if we aren`t working for change, it will happen to us, not with us. If you aren`t a part of a future change, it may not be the positive change that you would like for yourself."

Woodward cites several ways that dental hygienists can be a positive part of elevating the profession. First, she encourages everyone to be a part of the electoral process on the local, state, and national levels. "We must educate ourselves about the candidates. These people are going to make decisions on your behalf. We all need to vote. Personally, I?m ashamed of our record. Only 50 percent of our population is registered to vote. Only about half of this 50 percent vote in national elections, and it?s more like an 11 to 30 percent vote in local elections.O Looking at these statistics, it becomes obvious very quickly that one vote can often make all the difference.

Another way to participate in the electoral process is through involvement in the campaigning process and lobbying. Woodward said, OYou can work on the campaign of your favorite candidate or contribute to the campaign financially. The people who represent you are your neighbors, and they can?t know the scope of health care issues in dentistry.

OIt?s virtually impossible for a legislator to read all of the bills that are being considered. They have staff to help them with the research, but they also rely on others to tell them the truth, including experts in the field.

OYou are educated and can share information with them. Politicians make the laws that affect how and where we work, which affect patient access to care, which may affect our ability to make a living in a health care profession. If the politicians don?t have all the information, how can they make good decisions? If we don?t inform them by sharing our expertise, who is responsible? This is our place. Regardless of party affiliations, this process will continue. We all need to get involved. The legislative body must be reflective of our community or it will be over-influenced by money. It is true: a good professional is a good citizen.O

Woodward feels that involvement in our professional organizations is the second way we can promote our profession. She says that positive change is a long-term commitment and is easier when shared with others. She also feels that her service to the ADHA was a great opportunity for personal and professional growth. OMy experience as ADHA president was invaluable. What I received back from the ADHA was so much more than what I gave,O she said.

Interaction with other hygienists is the best way to be informed about issues facing the profession on state and national levels. Professional hygiene organizations, continuing education courses, and study groups are available and can lead to a better awareness of what?s happening. These are good opportunities to encourage each other to continue the pursuit of professional excellence and to bring other hygienists into the fold.

OWhen we are unified, we are stronger,O said Woodward. OAs a female-dominated profession, we have other huge responsibilities besides dental hygiene. But we need to look at the broader perspective. If everyone does a little, we can accomplish a lot. It?s too easy just to do our job, get the paycheck, and call it a day.O

We need to get the word out ? to a public that is largely unaware of our credentials ? that dental hygiene is much more than putting our fingers in someone else?s mouth. We have a captive audience while patients are in our chair. We need to tell them about what we?re doing and why. We need to inform the media and the politicians of our expertise and not be reluctant to tell them what we think. We need to encourage one another that to remain a profession we can?t rest on our laurels or licenses. We have to be involved in the process or we?ll be pushed aside. We?re smart and tough and certainly capable of doing this and doing it well.

One more anecdote to share. After completing a prophy and fluoride treatment on a young boy, he ran to his waiting mother, toothbrush clutched tight in his fist held high in the air. OLook, Mom!O he exclaimed. OA toothbrush from the dental hygenius!O See? I told you we were a smart bunch! Sometimes it just takes someone else to bring it to our attention.

Cathleen Terhune Alty, RDH, is based in Clarkston, Michigan.

Exploiting the Net in your state

Since many political issues involving dental hygiene are initiated at the state level, the wealth of Web sites explaining political activism at the federal level are almost worthless. But readers interested in a grassroots effort on a state or local level can find help on the Internet.

Many state and local governments, of course, host Web pages. But, if you`re uncertain about where to start, check out the links at politicaljunkie.com or states news.org. The latter is a Web site hosted by the Council of State Governments, while the former arguably offers the most comprehensive list of resources available for the politically minded.

What do tree-huggers do?

Americans who are concerned about the environment, of course, are not always wealthy. Some of them earn about as much as, well, a dental hygienist. They also have to battle special interest groups that are equipped with well-funded war chests. So what does the citizen concerned about the environment do?

The Sierra Club, in an article titled, "Seven things you can do to green your government," states:

* Register to vote. Voting is one of the easiest and most direct, ways to influence the government.

* Become a Sierra Club member. Becoming a Sierra Club member is one way to tell politicians you care about the environment. We work to keep politicians (and the public) aware of environmental issues.

* Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper. Letters to the editor provide for a chance to furnish insight on news and issues not being adequately covered by your local newspaper.

* Write a letter (or e-mail) to your representative.

* Volunteer on a campaign to elect a pro-environment candidate.

* Birddogging. Woof! Track down information on your elected officials. You have a right to know how they voted and where they get their money. How do the people who represent you act on your most important issues?

* Become a community activist. Educate your friends, family, and neighbors on the importance of the environment in elections.

Net chat about image

Editor?s Note: The article by Ms. Alty prompted a curiosity about promoting the professionalism of dental hygiene within the dental office setting. After all, even on a fundamental level, some employers have reservations about drawing too much attention to a hygienist?s professional status. But when you add the factor of the political climate ? for example, dental associations delegating traditional hygiene procedures to dental assistants ? the office environment may be even more hostile about Oputting in a good plugO for dental hygiene.

Is it safe to talk about the profession in the dental office? RDH asked the members of [email protected] how they Opresent the profession to patients. Is there any verbal communication about it, or do you just hope patients Onotice? your professionalism during the course of routine treatment?O Some responses are below.

[email protected], by the way, is not related to this magazine. Hygienists interested in networking with each other via the bulletin board can subscribe to it by visiting http://www.geocities.com/~hygienehelper.


OI actually have many patients ask me about my profession. I do not have any problems explaining what I do. They seem to want to know the difference between the assistant and the hygienist. I tell them about the job descriptions, the schooling, and that I have to be licensed to treat them in the way that I do. I do not bring up the subject. I answer, if asked.

OI do not talk about preceptorship during an appointment. I do not feel that is professional. They are in my chair for a service to be performed, not to discuss politics. I feel the public should be educated on the subject outside of the workplace.O


OI talk a lot about what I do with patients. Because I hang my credentials on my walls, patients ask a lot of questions. When patients ask questions about health, I sometimes start to answer their questions with OWhen I was in college we thought that .....we now know that ...? I think it is important for them to know their hygienist has a college education. I try to let patients know that we go to a lot of CE courses. OI was in a class recently that addressed your concern about your TMJ problems...? I try to mention at least once that our office is full of highly trained professionals and that I am right there in the thick of it.

OPatients always seem to comment on the fact that I seem to love what I do and what a nice place my office seems to be. To me, that is an invitation to let them know how wonderful we are and how wonderful my chosen profession is. Hopefully, these Oseeds? let patients know how important education and training is.O


OIn my office, everybody, including the dentists, reinforces my profession to patients. I am seen as an expert in the field of dental hygiene. My license is displayed right next to the dentists?, as well as our licensed dental radiologist. My credentials, educational background, certifications, and the professional organizations I belong to are shown to patients while they are in our reception area.

OIt is very important to my employer that our patients know they are receiving the highest quality of care from people who are well-educated in their field. I am considered a co-therapist in the practice and am treated with respect. The dentist I work with is a high-profile cosmetic dentist. It makes me feel good when he tells me and patients the outcome is a team effort.

OI think, if given the choice, people would rather be treated by professional who are truly dedicated to their work than someone who just needed a job.O


OI have been putting my degrees, certificates, and licenses on my operatory wall for many years now. I used to only discuss the various duties, education, and licensure of the dental staff if it came up in the conversation. However, I?ve become a bit more militant over the years, and I now try to find a way to bring it into any discussion I have with my patient ? especially with new patients who notice a difference in their treatment now that a hygienist has Ocleaned? their teeth (and they usually notice a big difference).

OMy employer has never acted as if he even notices my discussions with the patient. He values me greatly, and I can?t imagine him telling me what I could or could not say, as long as it was the truth.O