Don’t Fly Under the Radar

Dec. 1, 2007
Flying under the radar is a great coping technique for shy students wanting to avoid being called on in class.

by Lory Laughter, RDH, BS

Flying under the radar is a great coping technique for shy students wanting to avoid being called on in class. It also works in college — where being unnoticed can equal lower expectations from professors. I’ve even used the skill to avoid being asked to bring cookies to a child’s class party. There are times when not being the center of attention is the preferred situation. Trying to learn from exhibitors at the ADA annual session is not one of those times.

Diann Bergman, RDH, and I were on the exhibit floor for a number of reasons:

  • Learning about new products
  • Catching up with company reps we only see once a year
  • Promoting our fourth Annual Napa Dental Experience
  • Collecting a few samples along the way.

During our rounds, we approached a booth displaying burs. As hygienists, I admit our need for burs is low, but our desire to know the latest offerings is high. When we stepped up to the booth’s counter, the two men who had previously been speaking with one dentist actually turned their backs to us and pretended to be occupied with something in a box. That staged act only lasted a couple of minutes. Diann and I immediately knew the problem — our name tags had a red bar and not blue. We are not dentists.

At major dental meetings, name tags are color-coded for easy identification. Dentists have a blue bar, as was the case at the ADA, on their badge holder. All other dental team members have a red bar. Spouses and children have yet other colors, and exhibitors have a bar as well. So, when the salesmen at the bur booth saw the red bar they knew right away Diann and I were merely dental team members.

If only these individuals knew the true workings of dental office purchasing. The assistants in my office order burs (as well as all the dentist’s supplies) and suggest new burs for the dentists to try. Every member of our team is encouraged to seek out new technology and report back on our findings. Purchasing decisions are influenced, and even made, by those wearing the red name tags.

The bur exhibit was not the only booth to ignore our name tags. We watched flashing pens and toothpaste samples being handed out to the “blue folks,” only to be told samples were not being given out when we approached the same exhibitors.

It was a sobering experience — a sort of underdog existence. Eventually, we sought refuge with familiar faces and companies supportive of dental team members as vital contributors to the ADA’s society.

I know the ADA does not control exhibitors, yet this experience was a strong reminder of how the ADA feels about the role of the dental hygienist. Even more importantly, it was a chance to acknowledge to myself that my value as a professional is not defined by some outside organization with its own agenda. Our careers cannot be defined by the color of our badge.

We should no longer allow organized dentistry to ignore us. There are a couple of ways to achieve this goal. One is to stop seeking their guidance or approval. Beyond not joining the ADA as allied members (as I hope no reader of this column has done), it is time to stop some practices that keep dental hygienists under the control of organized dentistry. There is no reason a profession as educated and intelligent as dental hygienists needs ADA approval on our educational standards. The nursing profession does not allow physicians to dictate educational requirements for their careers.

Perhaps one of the best ways to move away from the restraint of organized dentistry is to stop acknowledging their power. Turn the tables and ignore their presence. It would mean no longer placing blame on any power outside of our own profession, but I know we could do it. Future plans for dental hygiene and the ADHA could completely avoid mention of the ADA. Future articles, columns, and presentations could eliminate reference to their control and perceived power. Consider it a challenge: one I will take myself from this column forward.

In my opinion, membership in the ADHA should be mandatory for a license to practice dental hygiene. Just as the nursing profession has a union to help protect their rights and lead their profession, we need organization. Perhaps unionization is the answer, or at least an option for further consideration. If we live by the cliché that each of us is the ADHA, then it is up to the dental hygienist to make our professional organization what we desire and need. We can start at the grassroots level and work on recruitment.

Yes, it would be ideal to have some written material to use in our efforts of increasing membership, but if those items can’t be obtained from the ADHA it is up to each of us to make our own. Be fearless; after all, the goal is to stand on our own both as an individual health-care provider and a profession.

The second way to show our dissatisfaction with organized dentistry and their control is with volume. Instead of merely complaining amongst ourselves, start complaining directly to the powers of ADA. Better yet, let the public know the truth about the ridiculous restraints placed on dental hygiene. We are educated health care professionals, not trained technicians. To steal a cheer, we should be loud and be proud.

It is imperative to remember not to confuse volume with argument. This is not the arena for yelling accusations or pointing fingers; it is the stage for presenting facts and letting the powers that be know we will not go away quietly. We can step up on our individual soapboxes and educate the general population about the profession of dental hygiene. I know my patients are shocked when I tell them dental hygienists are not permitted to diagnose periodontal disease. It makes no sense to the patient; so why does it make sense to the dental board? Even more perplexing is the requirement of taking another clinical board if we dare move to another state. Does location really influence our abilities and skills as practitioners?

Companies, members of the public, and even dentists are sensitive to our dilemma and supportive of our desire for self-regulation. Build relationships within those boundaries to find encouragement and power. Much like Diann and I sought out friendly booths at the ADA meeting, our profession can find and establish positive interaction with affable corporations and organizations.

The time is now to stop whining and begin complaining to the right faces. Take the opportunity to deny power to those who want to control and even eliminate our roles as oral health professionals. Demand the that the ADA’s “community dental health coordinator” position is limited to only licensed and educated dental hygienists. Nobody is going to step in and reclaim our profession for us. Let’s each do our part by being active members of our association and ensuring every RDH we meet knows why membership is not just important but essential. Flying under the radar is not acceptable: Demand to be noticed.

About the Author

Lory Laughter, RDH, BS, practices in Napa and Sonoma, Calif., in both general and periodontal offices. She is a partner of Dental IQ, a team committed to arranging quality continuing-education opportunities for Northern California. Through her involvement with Dental Hygienists Against Heart Disease and other organizations, she hopes to bring a total health concept to the dental practice. You may contact Lory at [email protected].