Stand up and be counted

When you tell new acquaintances that you are a dental hygienist, you frequently meet with one of these responses: "Who do you work for?" "Do you know a good dentist?" "How can you look in people`s mouths all day?" Most people view the hygienist as a caring, educated, well-paid professional who tends to nag them about their need to use dental floss.

What I am trying to do is enlighten you about some proposed actions threatening our profession.

Connie L. Sidder, RDH, BS

When you tell new acquaintances that you are a dental hygienist, you frequently meet with one of these responses: "Who do you work for?" "Do you know a good dentist?" "How can you look in people`s mouths all day?" Most people view the hygienist as a caring, educated, well-paid professional who tends to nag them about their need to use dental floss.

In movies and books, the hygienist is portrayed as able to take care of minor medical problems, too. The example that comes to mind is the scene in "There`s Something About Mary" when the hygienist`s daughter`s date develops a zipper problem! If a hygienist can look in mouths all day, I guess she can "stomach" other maladies.

You can assume that someone who is a hygienist attended college for at least two years. To graduate from an accredited hygiene program, you must have completed 2,000 hours of classroom study and 600 hours of clinical work. Another fact of being a hygienist is that you must pass state boards to receive a license. When people discover I`m a hygienist, my experience has been that I`m asked to supply information about their current treatment.

Hygienists are integral to the private dental practice. They are expected to guide patients in meeting their preventive needs, assist the doctor by being an extra pair of eyes during oral exams, and, in some offices, they may even place sealants. Frequently, questions of bleaching, nutrition, or dental treatment are asked of the hygienist. Patients feel comfortable asking the hygienist questions because they feel more of a connection with them, and they know hygienists are licensed, educated care-givers.

Many hygienists are striving to use their talents beyond the traditional private dental practice. In states where it is legal, many hygienists have opened up their own hygiene practices. Although most of us have found dentists with whom we are happily employed, others have experienced dissatisfaction and chosen to go the independent-practice route. I will go so far as to say that many of us who are happily employed have worked at some point in our careers in an office that was not a desirable place to stay. Hopefully, the patients in these offices are aware of the turnover among hygienists and have thought twice about staying with a practice that has a high employee-turnover rate.

What happens to the dentist who has high employee turnover? Do his/her assistants scale and polish children`s teeth? Is the dentist forced into doing prophys? Or, as is so often the case in Alabama, can a hygienist be trained in the office (preceptorship)?

For those readers still unfamiliar with the last option, preceptorship is a legal hygiene- training program. What it means is that a dentist can train someone for the hygienist position by acting as a "preceptor" on the job. Now, most of us who have been happily employed and live far away from Alabama don`t feel threatened by preceptorship.

Personally, I am not worried about someone trained in this manner taking my job. I believe my employer values all that I bring to my job. But, are you aware that the following states also are trying to pass preceptorship programs: Georgia, South Dakota, Tennessee, Montana, Virginia, Penn-sylvania, South Carolina, and Kansas?

What does concern me, in light of this legislative direction, is the closing of dental hygiene programs such as that of the 77-year-old school at Marquette University. It is the only bachelor`s-degree program in Wisconsin. I also am concerned that the Georgia Dental Association is lobbying the state legislature to amend a policy that states graduates of non-accredited dental hygiene schools may take the national board`s written exam.

In my state, Colorado, we have enjoyed progressive legislation allowing hygienists to open their own practices. The Colorado Dental Hygienists` Association has its own convention every fall. It boasts two members on the State Board of Dental Examiners and numerous community service programs. I personally have been involved in oral-cancer screenings, Children`s Dental Health Month programs, as well as school Career Day programs. I have enjoyed being able to contribute in this manner. I leave the politics to those who enjoy that aspect.

What I am trying to do is enlighten you about some proposed actions threatening our profession. Being a member of the American Dental Hygienists` Association not only allows us to keep abreast of new developments, but to get involved in our profession through community programs. Continuing-education courses also are available through local chapters.

To consider yourself a professional frequently requires membership in a professional organization. A strong representation requires money, membership input, and those willing to get involved. If you are able to do only one of the above, then join. The easiest way to join our professional organization is to go to the Web site at www.adha.org. Membership applications are available online. This is our chosen profession. Stand up and be counted. Join!

Connie L. Sidder, RDH, BS, is based in Fort Collins, Colo. She can be reached by telephone at (970) 482-4649 or by e-mail at consider@home.com.

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