BY JOANN R. GURENLIAN, RDH, PhD
Every time you are tempted to react in the same old way, ask yourself if you want to be a prisoner of the past or … a pioneer of the future. — Deepak Chopra
The pace picks up considerably in the autumn. There will be hygiene association component and annual session meetings to attend, and our focus shifts to professional issues. This is the perfect time to reflect on what is happening in your neck of the woods as well as around the country. There are always issues that need our collective attention — legislative, educational, clinical, and technologic.
Ever notice how a group of dental hygienists will strive to improve things for the health of the public, clinical practice, or dental hygiene education, and get waylaid by concerns that our dental colleagues will not approve or like the changes they wish to implement? It is frustrating hearing the local dental association profess to legislators that changes proposed by dental hygienists will not be safe, effective, or appropriate given their “training.” My particular favorite approach is when a former dental hygienist, who later graduated from dental school, testifies that he or she was ignorant until becoming a dentist. There is nothing quite like being sold down the river by our colleagues in oral health care who use their acclaimed expertise as the basis for making decisions about what we can and cannot do with little to no scientific evidence supporting their position.
Maybe it is time to try a different tact and get a new attitude. Rather than butting heads and resolving to make do, or compromise because the naysayers are stronger or have more money, we should adopt a “Yes, we can!” approach. What does that mean? It means strategizing with a new frame of reference, turning the “not going to happen” process into a “how can we make it happen?” approach. Perhaps we need to align ourselves with other like-minded groups outside of health care who have found ways to overcome similar challenges and adopt their style. How did someone get a motor vehicle law changed? How did a cohort get approval to work in a setting previously unavailable to them? What did these individuals do to sway legislators toward their point of view?
There are times when I witness us having a self-defeated attitude that takes away from the momentum of trying to get something accomplished. We have data that supports the proposal to make a change, but anticipating the fight with local dentists and/or legislators becomes overwhelming. We drop the ball or leave things to one or two volunteers to address. What we need to do is stop sitting in the wings hoping for the best and use our numbers to make ourselves heard. If we are proposing something important — something that is good for the public and the profession — we need to jump-start ourselves and forge ahead.
I had an eye-opening experience at a meeting with some of our dental hygiene colleagues from Canada. When talking about planning a doctoral program, I shared some of the conversations members of the task force had with dental educators. These dentists could not appreciate the need or interest in doctoral education among dental hygienists. After all, we are just teeth scrapers. What else could we possibly want to learn? Why aren’t we happy with our knowledge of instrumentation and periodontal disease? Is there really something else we could do with additional knowledge? Would advanced education be profitable?
Without missing a beat, these dental hygienists from the North asked why we think we need to explain ourselves or get the approval of a group that has nothing to do with our needs. They stated that others are allowed their opinions, and they should be respected, but not influential in keeping us from reaching our goals. If we want advanced education, create the models and make it happen. And, there it was … that aha moment. Maybe we hold ourselves back because we seek the approval of others who really should not be making decisions for our discipline. We accord them greater importance than ourselves. We defer. We accommodate. We compromise. To make things worse, we don’t expect or ask for the same consideration.
As the sun sets on the summer, let’s regroup as a profession. Start thinking about what would make oral health care better in your community. If children, adults, and the elderly are being neglected in your area, strategize about what would make things better. Partner with physicians, nurses, and other health-care providers. Volunteer in a local clinic and collect data about needs and care provided. Bring that information to your legislators. Show them the facts and demand they step up and address this situation responsibly. Show them your plans for providing quality care and your accountability measures. Point out that the current system is ineffective and ask them for their support to try something different than the status quo. Demonstrate your educational accomplishments. When our counterparts challenge this, ask them to provide the evidence that shows your plan will not work or is unsafe. Discount them if they have nothing else to offer but bravado. Make it clear that what you do is valuable and necessary, that prevention measures are effective, and that nothing will change unless we try.
Let’s face it. The oral health of the public is not improving. People will suffer from oral pain and dysfunction, lost days of work and school, and limited access to care. Can we solve these issues? Yes, we can! RDH
JOANN R. GURENLIAN, RDH, PhD, is president of Gurenlian & Associates, and provides consulting services and continuing-education programs to health-care providers. She is a professor and interim dental hygiene graduate program director at Idaho State University, adjunct faculty at Burlington County College and Montgomery County College, and president-elect of the International Federation of Dental Hygienists.