Author reflects on the reasons why she would choose her profession again
By Amber Metro-Sanchez, RDH, BA
A few months ago, I noticed a Facebook post that asked, "Would you choose dental hygiene as your career if you had the opportunity to do it over again?" By the time I responded, there was already an avalanche of responses from hygienists. I was extremely disappointed to see the plethora of negative comments.
Some responses from seasoned hygienists indicated that their jobs had changed too much over the years. Other comments from those new to the field expressed frustration over the scarcity of high quality job choices. Quite a few of the respondents indicated that dental hygiene was definitely not their field of choice.
During the next week, their thoughts really began to resonate with me.
It disheartened me to think of all of the people in our profession who didn't want to be there. Our jobs are very difficult, mentally and physically, and I could not imagine being a hygienist without being totally committed to my job every day. The overall negative sentiments of the posts really bothered me as I am so passionate and proud about being a dental hygienist. Obviously, there are a lot of RDHs out there who feel quite differently.
Nowadays there are many reasons why someone might be hesitant to work in dental hygiene. Difficulty finding a job would be on the top of the list, along with not getting enough hours once employment is found. Another issue is finding an office that fits their personality in this age of growing corporate dentistry.
Another detractor is entering a job field that oftentimes has limited benefits, especially after the emergence of the Affordable Care Act. And, of course, the ever-present reality of dealing with musculoskeletal injuries and pain is something nearly every hygienist has to face at some point.
Quite a few hygienists mentioned that they regret not pursuing a career in nursing. This field has become quite attractive recently because there's such a high demand for nurses, and employment is easy to find. The pay is also comparable to or better than that of dental hygiene. Also, nurses enjoy numerous job benefits, such as health insurance, vacation time, and 401(k) plans.
Ironically, I come from a family full of nurses. I often hear their complaints about how the field can burn one out quickly. From having to work holidays and long shifts with little or no breaks, to having to deal with piles of paperwork and not having enough time for patients, it's filled with numerous challenges. In fact, according to a study published in the International Journal of Nursing Studies,1 34% of nurses experience moderate levels of emotional exhaustion, and 25% have a high level of emotional exhaustion. Clearly, nursing is not the easy answer to a hygienist's frustration with dental hygiene.
I started thinking about what inspires me about being a dental hygienist. I've faced many of the challenges that other hygienists have, yet I'm committed to my career choice. I thought about what sets dental hygiene apart from other professions and about my journey as a dental hygienist for the past 11 years.
I still remember going to a seminar when I was fresh out of hygiene school and the lecturing dentist asked, "Why did you go into dental hygiene?" I gave the standard answer, "To help people." The dentist sitting next to me replied, "That's what every hygienist tells me. Tell me something different." I couldn't think of anything else at that moment and that bothered me.
What I didn't know at the time was the true reason why dental hygiene would become my passion. I was too new and lacked the knowledge I would gain from future experiences. Little did I know how dental hygiene would grow to be an essential part of who I am as a person.
One of my strongest motivations for being a dental hygienist is that every day I know I'm making a positive impact on the world one person at a time. Not a day goes by on the job that I don't feel like I've helped someone. I feel like I'm making a difference.
I used to work in a call center before I became a hygienist, and I found the work meaningless. I hated not being able to see the results of my efforts. I hated not being able to see a smile on someone's face. When I entered dental hygiene, I knew I'd finally found my niche. I immediately felt a great sense of satisfaction in knowing that I was helping my patients keep their smiles for a lifetime. I was hooked for life.
One of my favorite parts of being a hygienist is how much time I get to spend with my patients, one-on-one. I enjoy meeting people from many walks of life whom I never would have met otherwise. I feel privileged to be a part of their lives. I've heard many interesting stories, from what it's like to travel to Iceland to what it's like to live to age 97. I believe my life is enriched on a daily basis.
Being a dental hygienist gives me a chance to change lives for the better. I'm given an opportunity to treat people with empathy and caring in order to build a foundation of trust. I can help scared patients become more relaxed in the dental office, and my ultimate success is when I have a patient who can't wait to come back.
When my patients first walk through the door, I have no idea what they have encountered in their lifetime. I don't judge them by their past, but instead focus on attaining the optimum oral health that everyone deserves. I can change a patient's entire concept of what dentistry is through knowledge and understanding.
There are many reasons why dental hygiene may not be the career of choice for everyone, but it is the career of choice for me. I've had so many people tell me that they could never do my job, and they're right. As we all know, it takes a certain type of person to be a hygienist, to clean up some awful messes with a smile on your face. It takes a certain type of person to educate others who may not be ready to listen.
I hope that this person is you as the rewards of the dental hygiene field are limitless. I'm touched by the words and actions of so many of my patients each day. They're my continual inspiration. They give me a sense of accomplishment that I truly believe I couldn't find anywhere else.
I know the field of dental hygiene is far from perfect, but I'm going to be a part of the ongoing movement to make it better. Everything in life has its ups and downs, and I'm here for the long haul. After all, what would my patients do without me?! RDH
Amber Metro-Sanchez, RDH, BA, has practiced dental hygiene for 11 years with Dr. Chris Bible at Comfort Dental in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She was a member of the 2015 Colgate Oral Health Advisor Board. Amber has been a contributing author for the Colgate Oral Health Advisor webpage since March 2016. She can be reached at [email protected].
1. Canadas-De la Fuente G, Vargas C, San Luis C, et al. Risk factors and the prevalence of burnout in the nursing profession. International Journal of Nursing Studies. 2015. 52. 240-249.