When the prima donna and doctors pet get along, the tranquility is profound

I stood in the lab of my first perio office, wringing my hands. My patient was waiting, and I had to locate a sterile prophy angle fast. It was my first day, and I had a lot to learn about the office ... and the assistant. I was relieved when she whisked in to grab a tray setup. But when I asked her where the prophy angles were kept, she turned on her heel and headed for the door.

Joanne I. Sheehan, RDH

I stood in the lab of my first perio office, wringing my hands. My patient was waiting, and I had to locate a sterile prophy angle fast. It was my first day, and I had a lot to learn about the office ... and the assistant. I was relieved when she whisked in to grab a tray setup. But when I asked her where the prophy angles were kept, she turned on her heel and headed for the door.

"I have no idea," she retorted with a certain smugness, leaving me in an unnecessary quandary.

The age-old rivalry of hygienists and assistants is alive and well in many offices today. And it`s a real shame because no office can function effectively without the cooperation of all staff members, regardless of their job description. If you have found a happy workplace, hang on to it. There are offices that are not as fortunate as yours. Let`s take a look at the attitudes that make an office self-destruct.

There are assistants who feel that they are mistreated and looked down upon by some hygienists. Theresa Ramsey has been working as an assistant for 15 years.

"I`ve been in offices where hygienists are treated special and the assistants feel like they have to fight for respect," she said. "Some hygienists have a prima donna complex and won`t lift a finger to break down a room, even if they have nothing to do. When that keeps happening, the assistant can get the Cinderella syndrome, feeling unappreciated and harassed, running for the hygienist and the doctor all the time. It`s an attitude thing. Some hygienists think that the license on the wall elevates them above everyone else. There are plenty of assistants who are certified and very professional."

Theresa has had some good experiences with hygienists too.

"There are some hygienists who make a conscious effort to be a team player. I enjoy working with them. They`re special."

Theresa estimated that about 50 percent of the hygienists she has worked with over the years have had the prima donna complex. With a percentage like that, does that mean half of all hygienists are unable to work well with assistants ... and vice versa?

As a hygienist, my experience with some assistants over the years has been less than pleasant, partly due to a pre-conceived notion of what hygienists do and partly because of personality conflicts. Personality has everything to do with compatibility.

In the aforementioned office, I had not been working there long enough for the assistant to get to know me. Even though I was cleaning my own operatory, she had decided we were not to be friends.

Being the doctor`s right-hand man can give some assistants an inflated self-image, and this can ruin any hopes of a good relationship with co-workers. This assistant had her mind made up as far as I was concerned. I just wanted her to know that hygienists are innocent until proven guilty. A friendly office is paramount to me, and I was not long in that office. The tension I felt working there made it difficult to continue. Life is too short, and there were other offices.

Both the hygienist`s and the assistant`s jobs are crucial to the dental office. Without either, the office could not operate effectively.

I don`t assist. I`ve never been taught how, having gone from high school directly into hygiene school. But I love to watch an assistant who knows her stuff handing off instruments and knowing what the doctor needs before he does. It`s a mind-meld, four hands working toward the same goal. It`s beautiful and I admire the teamwork. The doctor could not easily operate without an assistant.

A hygienist can recognize an assistant with a team spirit. She doesn`t think of herself as the First Lady, but as part of the team. A good assistant will give a new hygienist time to get used to the office before she passes judgment on her. She might not turn out to be the spoiled and pampered doctor`s pet she thought she would be. No hygienist walks into a new office knowing everything. A friendly face and helpful information goes a long way toward building a solid friendship and a good working relationship.

Likewise, a smart hygienist will take care not to be a step-sister, asking the assistant to do things for her that she has time and opportunity to do herself. Beware of assistant abuse. It leads to bad relations.

As Theresa puts it, OMutual respect is the key.O And respect is contagious. I always respect a person who respects others.

Now let?s look at one office where the hygienist-assistant relationship works.

Melinda Albrycht has assisted in the past and is now working at the front desk as an office administrator. When asked why her office members get along so well, she laughed, ONone of our hygienists thinks she?s God!O

She told me the whole office gets together for office parties, pool parties, shopping trips, etc. (The doctor is always invited, but his presence is not mandatory.) The girls see each other in and outside the office, building close personal relationships. When your co-workers are also your friends, your workdays with the schedule from hell go smoother than they normally would.

Theresa?s staff, doctor included, invests in relationship-building activities too. Japanese steakhouses, laser tag, cookouts, and jet skiing are just a few ways they have had fun together outside the office. When everyone is in a pair of cut-off jeans with barbecue sauce on their faces, people can relate to each other better. No rank, just a feeling of belonging to this messy group of people.

Hygienists and assistants don?t have to be at odds. With a little respect, sensitivity, fewer Oattitudes,O and group activities, they can even learn to like each other!

Joanne I. Sheehan, RDH, graduated from the State University of New York at Farmingdale in 1974 and has practiced dental hygiene in New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, and Alabama. She has taught in North Carolina and worked for the Army as a dental hygienist in Germany for three years.

More in In-office Preventive