If you sit a baby boomer down with a glass of wine, you can probably get the Boomer to reflect on a leader who paved a path for the Hygiene profession in the 1970s or 1980s.

In my opinion, the true pioneers of the profession are the dental hygienists practicing in 2016.

In my opinion, the true pioneers of the profession are the dental hygienists practicing in 2016. The baby boomers, of course, were the ones who declared, "Hey, the doctor is for restorative. I'm about prevention. Let me do my job-independently, if I have to!" In many cases, boomers were taught by, or had face-to-face exposure to, dental hygienists from the early years of the profession.

But dying kids have a way of creating new pioneers.

Regardless of whether Deamonte Driver's death in 2007 was due to institutional racism (and there's certainly room for argument that it was), the black Maryland youth's demise from oral disease shook the foundation of the cottage industry that had become dentistry. For decades, mothers from middle class families (and upward in wealth status) took on the duty to feed sweet income to dental professionals, scheduling twice-annual appointments for their children. The children took on the same responsibility when they had families of their own.

For the last few years, however, we have been pummeled with the statistics about the underserved populations. Half of Americans didn't pursue dental care because they couldn't be bothered with the personal responsibility; half of Americans didn't pursue dental care because they didn't have access to it (the issue of access includes the factor of affordability).

So whether 2016 dental hygienists are addressing systemic links to oral health (particularly in the area of nutrition), practicing in underserved areas, or developing the science of the profession to include sleep disorders, for example, dental hygienists' hands will be busier than ever. This is quite a challenge that the profession is involved with, and they are pioneers in every sense of the word.

I read an article before writing this one about how charitable dental clinics in Tennessee enjoyed a 30% increase in the number of patients treated in 2015. How many for-profit dental practices would sell their souls for a 30% increase? Practice management consultants would likely zero in on the word "charity." After all, dental professionals do need to earn a living. The hope, though, is that a better educated underserved population can make better choices about oral care in the future.

RDH magazine does ask its writers to offer creative solutions for meeting the challenges facing dentistry. So do the editors of the RDH eVillage newsletters. The speakers at the RDH Under One Roof conference are also asked to consider innovative solutions to care. The pioneers among us in 2016 are searching for answers. Hopefully, the profession will continue to engage with each other, excited about how dentistry will become a vibrant cadre of caring professionals who address a wide variety of patients with a wide variety of needs.

Those pioneers are leading the charge. Let's support them in every way possible.

Mark Hartley

markh@pennwell.com

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