Th 330937

Our Remarkable Role

Jan. 1, 2010
Focused on prevention, but with a sense of business savvy.
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Focused on prevention, but with a sense of business savvy.

by Cynthia M. Quint, RDH

The dental hygiene profession has dramatically changed in the last 100 years. When the profession was developed in 1906, the purpose of the dental hygienist was to provide preventive dental cleanings for patients. Today, the main purpose of dental hygiene is still to provide preventive dental care, however many more responsibilities have been added.

The hygienist is expected to provide excellent health care and at the same time generate a profit. The production from a good hygiene department can greatly contribute to the success of a dental office. For many hygienists, the word production is enough to make their scalers and polishers come to a screeching halt. For a long time, I was one of them. I believed it was impossible to provide ethical, quality health care while generating a profitable hygiene department. The fact is that a dental office is a business. The many responsibilities of the dental hygienist play an important role in the successful operation of a dental office.

Dental hygienists have many responsibilities. Each day there are countless tasks that must be performed besides routine prophylaxis appointments. A typical day includes meetings, treating patients, and miscellaneous tasks such as equipment maintenance and inventory. Each time a patient is scheduled, the appointment typically includes updating health histories, reviewing the patient's complaints, radiographs, periodontal charting, scaling, polishing, fluoride treatment, intraoral camera and discussing potential treatment plans, recommendations for take-home options such as electric toothbrush or antimicrobial rinse, oral cancer screening, recall scheduling, post services, and finally, chart write-up. Somewhere at the end of that long list is a doctor's exam. We hope that we don't have to wait long for that exam, because we are expected to run perfectly on time for our next patient. This process is repeated many times throughout the day.

While performing these tasks, all with a smile of course, the behind-the-scenes expectations weigh heavily on the hygienists' minds. Hygienists must be constantly cognizant of their schedules; always making sure they're full. Sure, we hope that the front office is working diligently to keep them full. However, the ultimate responsibility falls on dental hygienists to keep their schedules running efficiently. You may have noticed the task, “intraoral camera and discuss potential treatment plans.” It is the responsibility of the hygienist to identify any areas of needed and potential treatment. This means identifying decay, periodontal disease, or any other need-based treatment.

More hygiene responsibilities

Then it is necessary to look for any optional treatment for the patient, such as whitening, veneers, or crowns. Prior to the dentist entering the room, the hygienist educates the patient about the findings and potential treatment options. It is important to mention that the hygienist is not technically diagnosing. He or she is only pointing out to the patient the areas the doctor will want to further address. Prior to the exam, the hygienist will typically meet with the doctor to discuss his or her findings and recommendations. This achieves a lot for the dental team. Besides shortening the exam, it also helps prep the patient prior to the dentist entering and diagnosing.

The hygienist's goal is to have already made the sale so the doctor will just need to confirm the findings. Yes, I said “sale.” This is another word that makes dental hygienists cringe. We leave hygiene school intending to cure the world of periodontal disease, and suddenly we find ourselves bound to production goals, selling treatment plans, and products. The key in any hygiene department is to find work to do. When the hygiene department sells treatment plans, the doctor stays productive. As a doctor's schedule slows down, the first place to look for work is in the hygiene schedule.

Another responsibility of the hygienist is to generate production. There are hourly, daily, and monthly production goals to meet. These goals are mostly met through prophylaxes, radiographs, and fluoride treatments; however, these procedures alone will not reach the goals necessary for the hygiene department. Periodontal procedures are expected to generate a fixed percentage of the overall hygiene production. The remainder of needed production falls into the category of selling products. Selling products such as whitening trays, bleach refills, and electric toothbrushes can help a hygiene department reach its desired production goals.

Dental hygiene as a profession has come a long way. We are no longer thought of as “the person who cleans teeth.” Instead, looking at our countless responsibilities, we have a key role in the success of dental offices. I ask those who are still fighting the terms “production” and “sales” in the hygiene department to stop fighting and embrace the remarkable role the dental hygienist plays in the business of dentistry.

About the Author

Cynthia M. Quint, RDH, is a clinical practitioner in a private office in Strongsville, Ohio. She has been practicing as a dental hygienist for six years, and was a dental assistant for six years before becoming a hygienist. Cynthia is currently pursuing her BS in health science with a certificate in bioethics at Cleveland State University. She serves on the Allied Dental Advisory Committee for Cuyahoga Community College and is also the vice president of the Cleveland Dental Hygienists' Association.