The person whos supposed to do it

Oct. 1, 1999
The woman followed me happily enough from the waiting room, but when I turned into my operatory instead of leading her to the dentist`s operatory, she stopped dead in the doorway. She looked around suspiciously.

Cathy Hester Seckman, RDH

The woman followed me happily enough from the waiting room, but when I turned into my operatory instead of leading her to the dentist`s operatory, she stopped dead in the doorway. She looked around suspiciously.

"Are you going to see me, or is the dentist going to see me?"

Oh, no, it`s another one of those.

"You`re scheduled with me this morning," I said easily. "I`m going to clean your teeth, then the dentist will be in for an exam."

She shook her head. "I don`t like that. I`m one of those old-fashioned people. I like the person to work on me who`s supposed to work on me."

Old-fashioned, my foot. You`re just being rude.

"I`m supposed to work on you," I repeated. "I`m the hygienist."

"The what?"

These are the nineties, lady.

"The hygienist," I said again. "The person who cleans your teeth."

The woman was still standing immovably in the doorway. "Well, the dentist usually does my teeth. I want him to see me."

"The dentist is doing some fillings for another patient right now," I said as pleasantly as I could. "If you want to re-schedule ..."

Go ahead, make my day.

"No, no, no," she groused, finally heading for the chair. "I have an appointment to get my teeth cleaned today, and that`s what I want done. I just didn`t want some helper to work on me."

Helper? I went to college for this?

"I`m a licensed professional," I said through clenched teeth. "See that piece of paper on the wall? It`s my license from the state dental board. It says I`m qualified to clean your teeth. I went to school for two years to learn how to do this, and I`ve worked in dentistry for 13 years."

"Oh, it`s nothing against you," she said, still grumpy. "I`m just one of those old-fashioned ones. When I come to the dentist, I want to see the dentist. That`s what I get for not telling the girl on the phone. Next time, I`ll make sure she schedules the dentist to do my teeth, like it`s supposed to be."

She submitted to my cleaning with bad grace. I went to great pains to make it as different as possible from what she would have experienced in a dentist`s chair. My touch was as light as possible. I used a hand mirror to point out areas she was missing; I asked about her home care habits; I demonstrated proper floss technique and let her practice; I finished with a thorough polish. On her way out later she apologized for being rude, but I`m afraid nothing I said or did that day changed her mind. She still didn`t believe in hygienists. And my teeth were still clenched.

This happened a few years ago, and it still makes me fume. Whose fault was it? I can blame my employer for part of it. He`s been practicing nearly 40 years and has never had a hygienist more than two days a week.

Consequently, he does a lot of prophys himself. He has always had a hard core of patients who believe only a dentist can clean their teeth, and he accepts that attitude. Some patients? charts have a note on them: OLikes dr for proph.O We?ve had one or two heated discussions about this ? I see it as a lack of support for my professionalism; he sees it as giving the patients the kind of dentistry they want.

Another place I can lay the blame is at the feet of the people who sell oral health products. Think about all the commercials and advertisements you?ve ever seen for things like toothpaste, mouthwash, dental floss, and bleaching systems. How many times is a hygienist featured in the ad? You?re right, not very often.

OThe one more dentists recommend.O

OMy dentist said I had tartar!O

OMy dad is a dentist, and he sent me this toothpaste.O

OOnly your dentist can clean your teeth better.O

Face it, as far as advertisers are concerned, hygienists don?t exist. Why should we be surprised that patients look to a dentist for total care?

I complained to a dental products rep about the problem once, and she just laughed. OYou know,O she said, OI think you?re right. I never see hygienists in commercials. I wonder why?O

Is there a way we could address this problem? What would happen, I wonder, if a few hundred hygienists wrote to all of the big companies and complained because hygienists are rarely seen in their advertisements? Suppose they listened to us. Suppose a quiet revolution took place in the oral health care advertising sector. We might start seeing commercials and reading ads like this:

ODental hygienists recommend it three to one.O

OMy hygienist says no more tartar!O

OOur mom?s a hygienist, and she lets us chew this gum.O

OMy teeth feel like the hygienist just cleaned them.O

Wouldn?t that be great? Then maybe the next time my employer cleans a patient?s teeth, the patient will complain because he isn?t a hygienist ? the one who?s supposed to do it.

Cathy Hester Seckman, RDH, is based in Calcutta, Ohio.