BY Jannette Whisenhunt, RDH, BS, MEd, PhD
Looking for a job can be time-consuming, difficult, and discouraging - especially if it takes you a long time to find a fill-in or part-time job. What can you do to keep your skill level up and stay current with your instrumentation skills? Although some investigation may be required, finding an area where you can work for free is worth it. You may think the idea of "working for free" is crazy, but let's discuss some of the benefits. These are what I call my top 10 reasons to say "YES!" to volunteering.
1. Help patients - The most obvious benefit to volunteering is helping the patients you treat. With the current economy, many people do not have insurance, and as a result, they have allowed dental care to take a backseat. Many free dental clinics, such as those provided by Mission of Mercy (MOM), have been sprouting up across the United States. At these clinics, people from all walks of life stand in line - sometimes for more than 16 hours at a time - to wait for common dental procedures, such as fillings and extractions. The patients are thankful for the oral care they receive, and to be able to help them is personally rewarding. For some, a first visit to one of these clinics may be a first professional cleaning. Although that's sad, these types of clinics are the only way some people have access to dental care. As a volunteer, you can teach them a lot about taking care of their teeth, and they will definitely benefit from your help.
2. Update your instrumentation skills - Volunteering will allow you to keep your instrumentation skills and speed up-to-date. If you are unable to work for several weeks while you look for a job, you might begin to worry about losing your skills. If you are looking for your first job, the idea of losing your skills may be even more disturbing because you lack experience. Working as a volunteer at a community clinic or free dental clinic will help you to build/maintain your speed and hone your skills. Staying busy with these types of opportunities will help you to feel more comfortable in your next job.
3. Feel good inside - Helping someone can give you that "good deep down" feeling. Paying it forward feels right, and at these clinics, you'll have the best kind of patients. They will be grateful for your expertise, your experience, and your desire to help them. Knowing that your skills will help someone keep their teeth longer can make you feel great. For a hygienist, that is an awesome feeling you can get hooked on, which is a good thing! Not many people take time from their busy schedules to help others, and when you volunteer, it reminds you that you are a caring person.
4. Meet important people - You can network! You never know who you might meet while you are volunteering who might be able to help you later. Many free clinic volunteers are people who have their own practices and volunteer on weekends or at night. These volunteers are willing to help people who share their values in helping others and who tend to know other people in the field. In dentistry, you want to know these people. If you network with them and give them your contact information, they can call you when they know of a practice that needs a hygienist.
5. Become flexible - You will learn a great quality in volunteer dentistry: flexibility. One of the best qualities that any person in dentistry can have is flexibility. By the end of the day, a dental office schedule is almost never the same as it was in the morning. Patients cancel their appointments, and procedures change at the last minute. These types of situations happen at free clinics, as well. When change happens, you have to step back and remember that you are learning a skill. How you react to these changes is important. If you get upset and stressed out, it makes for a frustrating day. When working in a variety of settings, you learn to work on different equipment and in different room arrangements. This keeps you on your toes and makes you more compatible with all types of work environments. In dentistry, it is always a good thing to learn to "go with the flow."
6. Earn continuing education (CE) credits - Volunteer work often counts toward your annual CE credits for relicensure. Check the CE requirements and guidelines for your state; sometimes a few hours of volunteer work can count toward your CE hours for the year. It may only be a few hours, but the benefit is worth the effort, and you don't have to pay for it!
I challenge you to look for a place to volunteer in your community! Here are some suggestions to get you started:
• Ask your dentist if s/he would open the office on a Saturday morning to provide free cleanings to members of the community who lack access to dental care.
• Look for a free dental clinic in your area.
• Ask the local dental society if there are clinics in need of volunteers.
• Ask dentists in your area who already volunteer if you can help out; they will be glad that you offer.
• Look into the Dental Life Line Network, a large nationwide organization that has a program called Donated Dental Services, which matches volunteers with people who need treatment. According to the website, over 12,000 patients received treatment last year, and plenty of patients are still in need.
• Check with the American Dental Association's Member Center page, which lists volunteer opportunities.
7. Set an example for others - By volunteering, you will set a good example for other hygienists. If you are a member of the American Dental Hygienists' Association and attend your local hygiene meetings, you can develop a buddy system for volunteer work through which buddies work together and support each other. If you are working in an office, you can act as a good example for your coworkers. When other hygienists or assistants see that you work for free, they may be inspired to help you sometime.
8. Learn something new - When you volunteer, your skills will improve, and you will learn something new every day. Don't you miss that from school? Most hygienists love to learn, and volunteer work is an opportunity for learning. By working in volunteer clinic environments, you may be exposed to different kinds of medical histories in patients from populations or cultures that you might not see in a typical dental office. Having new experiences keeps you thinking and using that great brain of yours. Plus, learning about other kinds of people can make you a more well-rounded person!
9. Good reputation - You will get a good reputation. Who doesn't want that? Having a good reputation will make you feel good. Having a good heart and wanting to help others for free is admirable. Of course, you may have to learn how to say "no" sometimes, but that is under your control.
10. Do the right thing - We are so blessed to have the knowledge and know-how to help patients with their oral health, which is right at our fingertips. (Pun intended.) It is up to us to use these gifts in order to help others. Not everyone can do what we do, and we should not take our abilities for granted. Compared to other professions, such as nursing, there are not many dental hygienists. As a result, we need to be involved with our communities and use our wonderful skills to help others - even when it means that we are not getting paid!
You can start your search for opportunities with one of these websites:
• The National Directory of Free Dental Clinics, freedentalcare.us
• The American Dental Association's Member Center, ada.org/en/member-center/volunteer-opportunities
• The dental society in your state
• The Dental Life Line Network, dentallifeline.org
Please note that some of these websites above will require you to register in order to see the free clinics, and some may ask for donations that are used to help people who cannot afford dentistry.
Volunteer opportunities are out there, and if you search for them, you can find them. Once you've volunteered, you will be happy that you did it - so go do it! It's almost Thanksgiving, and your health and ability to work for free should be on your list of reasons to be thankful. Now, get out there, and be good! Happy scaling! RDH
Jannette Whisenhunt, RDH, BS, MEd, PhD, is the Department Chair of Dental Education at Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem, N.C. Dr. Whisenhunt has taught since 1987 in the dental hygiene and dental assisting curricula. She has a love for students and served as the state student advisor for nine years and has won the student Advisor of the Year award from ADHA in the past. Her teaching interests are in oral cancer, ethics, infection control, emergencies and orofacial anatomy. Dr. Whisenhunt also has a small continuing education business where she provides CE courses for dental practices and local associations. She can be reached at [email protected].