What have you done for profession lately? How to change the dental hygiene profession for the better

April 1, 2017
Lory Laughter, RDH, hears the complaints and praise for the dental hygiene profession, but what are the best ways to initiate change?

By Lory Laughter,RDH, BS, MS

I’ve had a long-time interest in what makes us tick as a profession. It is easy to get an answer when inquiring about the pitfalls or harsh realities of being a dental hygienist. But I also wonder why we stay even in the midst of physical pain and job shortages. My thoughts on this matter have varied over time, and I find myself asking new professionals as well as seasoned veterans what they love or wish to change in their careers.

My personal frustration with the profession is the lack of recognition as health-care providers and the continual struggle to provide preventive services to those who need it most. I stay in dental hygiene because I found my niche and continually work to renew my vision for my career. I knew in my junior year of college I would not be happy scaling teeth for a long period of time. Yet, the health-care role appealed to me. I found writing about 10 years into my career and that led to other endeavors and further education. Speaking and listening to dental hygienists around the country sparked my interest in the political side of the profession, and I found myself taking on roles I never envisioned a few years prior. I guess I stay because I hope to make a positive difference.

I posed this same question to friends and colleagues on social media, at work, and through casual conversation. The answers ranged from the norm to ideals and aspirations new to my thought process.

One popular running theme was dissatisfaction with demands placed on dental hygienists by employers or office managers. These ranged from time constraints to a lack of breaks. I am surprised at the number of hygienists who are asked to see multiple patients in one time block. Double-booking is more of a norm than I imagined, and 30-minute appointments are widely expected. I don’t care how fast one can run an instrument over a tooth, it is not possible to provide comprehensive preventive care to an adult in 30 minutes. It takes time to assess, treat, and educate a patient - much less build rapport.

Another theme often repeated to my query was the lack of benefits for most dental hygienists. The small business nature of independent private practices does not lend itself to full-time positions. Most of those who responded work part time and many work at two or three offices to get full-time hours. Even though the hours add up, benefits are not part of the deal since it is multiple part-time positions. Almost 10% of those who responded work more than 40 hours a week but with no full-time benefits. That would be a frustration in any profession.

Why we stay

The reasons hygienists give for staying in the profession were uplifting, inspiring, and show the types of individuals who choose health care as a career. There was the often spoken ideal of helping people and building relationships with patients and other professionals. A good portion mentioned networking and opportunities to collaborate with colleagues at CE events and conventions. Attending the RDH Under One Roof conference was even mentioned as the sole reason one tired RDH stays with her career. Something that powerful should not be missed: register at rdhunderoneroof.com.

What I most enjoyed in this endeavor to seek understanding why we complain so loudly but stay so long in dental hygiene was the suggestions for improvement. It was not specifically a question I asked, but input was given and enlightening.

The number of those stating a preference for a bachelor’s level entry into dental hygiene was higher than I would have expected - especially since I didn’t pose the question. Increasing the entry level requirement is seen as a way to also improve public and professional perception of our role in health care. Face it, most programs require credits nearly equal to a bachelor’s degree anyway. Why not receive the degree earned? It is simply fact that careers with higher educational requirements are viewed more favorably by the general population. Also, if one plans to do anything beyond working in clinical practice, a bachelor’s degree is normally the lowest expected degree. I also think when more dental hygienists have doctorates or profession will benefit.

National licensure requirements are another big area for improvement according to many dental hygienists. For this to become reality, consistency in duties taught and courses required would also need to be standardized among all states. This could be good for the profession, the public, and the portability of licenses for hygienists. (In my ideal scenario, it would also mean local anesthetic and nitrous oxide administration for all dental hygienists.) This topic is not new and many have advocated for license portability for years, yet I don’t see it being any closer to reality.

One response that made me smile was the idea that dental hygienists should be educated with dentists. I take that one step further and see a day when all dental professionals are educated together. I am privileged to teach in such an environment where dental students and dental hygiene students as well as specialty residents and visiting dental assisting students all learn collaboratively. Hopefully, after graduation, these well-educated professionals will be a step ahead in working together to deliver the best possible preventive and restorative care to the public.

One point must be made before closing. None of our complaints are heard and no suggestions for improvement are considered unless they are voiced in a calm, consistent, and rational manner. It only takes one person to change the world. But change comes easier when many share the same message and vision.

When is the last time you attended a local meeting for dental hygienists? When did you last call or write you legislator? When was your last letter to the editor or informational piece published? It must be asked: What have you done for your profession lately? Then we can ask: what has the profession done for us. 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 [email protected].