The problem with multitasking: Dental hygienists are not designed to be a one-person dental team

Lory Laughter comments on how dental hygienists have a role to fill in the dental setting,and cross training distracts from that objective.

Jul 1st, 2017
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By Lory Laughter, RDH, BS, MS

I am lucky enough in life to be surrounded by interesting, intelligent, and insightful people. Conversations that start out as small talk or merely time fillers often become thought-provoking moments for me. Most recently this happened during a free moment at work when a wise professor was talking to me about spreading myself too thin. She repeated to me something her mother once said to her. “If you try to be good at everything, you will be great at nothing.”

At first, I saw the statement as limiting - trying to convince me I can’t do all the things I enjoy. But on further reflection, it is correct and perhaps a good motto for keeping a balanced life. The statement does not say we cannot do everything we want to in life, but rather we can’t do all of those things at one time. True in life and our professional careers.

A spirit of courage to try new things is important in life. Without new experiences, based on trial and error, we would not have growth. Failure is part of becoming great at any task or skill. The ability to recognize those areas of focus that allow one to become great is also necessary. We may attempt many things on our quest to fulfillment, but we need to pause and develop talents we hold naturally or skill sets we truly enjoy.

In dentistry, many have witnessed the person who wants to be everything to everyone, often to the detriment of coworkers and clients. In clinical practice, while the lines are not solid, dental professionals tend to fill the roles for which they are educated. Dentists bear the responsibility for oversight and outcomes, while dental assistants carry out a vast variety of duties to make that process run smoothly and in the best interest of the patients and the practice. Registered dental hygienists should be responsible for the preventive arm of the practice, along with other duties as outlined by the dental practice act in their state. Administrative team members are a vital component to keeping a practice financially viable and taking care of almost everything behind the scenes.

I am aware that not all practices have every role above and I am aware that many others delegate duties in another fashion, but the fact remains that an office does not survive on the skills of just one person. A few issues come to mind with the one-person approach, including best use of time, best use of skills, and best care for the patient.

We all know the dental assistant who is confident in his or her prophy skills. As long as no one is looking, this stellar DA can make any enamel surface shiny and free of stain. Though is this the best use of the DA’s time? Depending on the state and allowable duties, time would be better spent on things the RDH is not best educated to do. Case in point, it is perfectly legal for me to make and place a temporary crown after a dentist preps a tooth. I am even able to do such a task with relatively good precision. But it takes me at least an hour, while it may take a skilled dental assistant 20 minutes. It is far better for me to provide the prophy and the DA to craft the temporary.

The aforementioned example is not to say there should not be cross training in a practice, but things progress in the best possible way if everyone uses their skills to the fullest advantage.

The temptation to be everything to everyone is not limited to clinical practice. I dare say there are numerous readers who are multitasking their skills to the maximum, trying to fill every niche and need seen. Somewhere the desire to spread out the work among those with the necessary talents and desires has given way to the I-can-do-it-all approach. Perhaps we have all been guilty of overstretching our capabilities at some point or another.

The best dental consultant I know does not do her own writing. She knows there are others who can put her ideas, suggestions, and plans on paper with more ease, precision, and talent than she can do herself. As a result, her product is excellent and her clients praise her business all the time. Nothing is lost in the process and better service is provided.

Some of the best continuing education providers in the industry are not great consultants. The best writers are not always the best presenters, and even the greatest of educators are not automatically the best speakers. Yet, all possess the potential to be excellent in their chosen path. The great become better through collaboration.

All this being known, there are still those of us who want to cram as much as we can into this life. Luckily, that is also possible, though perhaps not all at once. Amazing writers have become excellent speakers and skilled educators have continued their careers by becoming wonderful continuing education providers. It’s not all or nothing, but rather not all at once.

There are so many paths to take in our profession, each one as valuable as the next and all with their own challenges and benefits. We are lucky to have the opportunity to move between career paths and expand our education and skills in so many directions. Taking advantage of these varying prospects is one perk of being a dental professional - specifically an RDH.

It worries me sometimes to meet and converse with the individual who sees the need to be everything at once. Such a path does not allow much time for relaxing and enjoying all this world has to offer, both in our profession and outside it. Dr. Robbins’ parting advice for me last week rings true for all overachievers. “Life is long enough for us to do many things - pick and choose where you spend your given time.”

Sit back, relax for a moment, and plan your next exciting step. RDH


Lory Laughter, RDH, BS, MS, practices clinically in Napa, Calif. She is an assistant professor of periodontics at University of the Pacific. Her role as an international speaker allows her to combine her love of travel with educating dental professionals. She is a clinical educator for American Eagle Instruments. She can be contacted at lorylaughter@aol.com.

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