The RDH and DA: Why we still like these dental professions (and dislike them too)

These two experienced dental hygiene and dental assisting editors recently challenged each other to list three things they like about the professions they cover, as well as three things they dislike. Here are their thoughts.

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MARK HARTLEY AND KEVIN HENRY collaborated on numerous editorial projects at PennWell, the publisher of RDH magazine, from 1999 to 2013. Hartley has been the editor of RDH magazine since 1995, and he has been covering the dental hygiene profession since 1985.

While at PennWell, Henry helped launched what is now Dental Assisting & Office Manager Digest. In 2016, he cofounded IgniteDA, an online community for dental assistants. In September, his book, Battling and Beating the Demons of Dental Assisting, was published.

Mark Hartley, left; Kevin Henry, right

The two former colleagues recently challenged each other to list three things they like about the professions they cover, as well as three things they dislike. Here are their thoughts.

Likes: Dental hygiene (Mark Hartley)

+3. Access is important

This has not reached an endpoint yet. The future roles of dental hygienists are still very much a work in progress. But it's encouraging to see so many governmental agencies and think tanks recognize that, hey, dental hygienists are the preventive experts, and they can be a critical element in improving oral health in this country. So it's encouraging to see some of the opportunities that the profession has in improving access to care.

+2. It’s where the rubber meets the road

The top career in dentistry remains the restorative dentist. There are obvious limitations within society for everyone to aspire to be a general dentist or a specialist. If we can just get the economic forecasting models down pat, dental hygiene is a great health-care profession. For good reasons, I'm sure Kevin is going to make the same argument about dental assisting. But Dr. Alfred Fones’ vision of an oral health prevention expert is as viable now as it was 100-plus years ago. Dental hygiene is where the rubber meets the road in dentistry.

+1. It's a meeting place

It's not my intent to plug a service provided by my employer (PennWell). So I definitely want to include the American Dental Hygienists' Association here. Both the RDH Under One Roof conference and the ADHA's annual session have evolved in remarkable ways with the formats of the meetings. I really do think these summertime dental hygiene meetings are helping the profession leap forward by creating these large venues where only dental hygienists are encouraged to gather together.

Likes: Dental assisting (Kevin Henry)

+3. It’s all about the influence

Let’s be honest, the dentist may say a patient needs the crown, but when he or she leaves the room, it’s the assistant who gets asked if it’s really needed or not. Patients trust assistants and see them as their equals. This goes a long way toward the assistant being the final (and often most important) piece of the case presentation puzzle. When an assistant is confident in the dentist’s skills and knows it is the right thing for the patient, it makes a world of difference in the eyes of the patient. Never take this influence lightly.

+2. The future is bright

I will absolutely agree with Mark here. The future is bright for the dental industry and for men and women to pursue a career in dental assisting. There is a reason why it was named one of the Top 100 jobs you can get recently by U.S. News & World Report. Most importantly, dental assisting provides you with a chance to change the lives of patients around the nation. There are more dental assistants out there than any other dental profession. It’s time to recognize what an amazing profession this is and why assistants should be proud of what they do.

+1. It’s a new world every day

No offense to our friends and colleagues in hygiene, but the job duties of an assistant change from procedure to procedure and day to day. It’s never the same day twice and you never hear an assistant say he or she is bored. Bouncing from oral surgery to preventive procedures is all in a day’s work for an assistant . . . and that’s a good thing. A change of pace keeps assistants energized and loving what they do. By the way, there are so many assistants who love days with oral surgery procedures. I am thankful for all of you who have stronger stomachs than me!

Dislikes: Dental hygiene (Mark Hartley)

-1. Professional association

I think we need to move from praising the ADHA's annual meeting to criticizing the support of the professional association. This arguably could be the thing I like the least about the direction of the profession, except that it has always been this way. Dental hygienists have always been weak with their support of their national association. The collective voice of the profession suffers as a result. It's just difficult to get outsiders to be impressed with the profession when the association struggles incessantly with membership retention.

-2. Who's the boss?

As much as we all admire the healing capabilities of dentists, they just seem to be so ill-prepared to be business leaders. Thirty years ago, dental hygienists kept an eye out for applying for an opening at the local dream dental office. They're still doing that today. Why can't every dental office be the ultimate fantasy workplace? The truth is that dentists have remarkably little accountability outside the financial goals that they establish for themselves. On the other side of the employment spectrum, dental service organizations (DSOs) are not really much better, often forcing dental hygienists to daily struggle with health-care ethical issues vs. corporate goals.

-3. No exit

Earlier in the decade, we went through the development of a glut of dental hygienists who were unable to find jobs, or at least jobs that resembled full-time careers. The government's rosy forecasts about the profession didn't quite pan out. So, the most discouraging thing is observing large groups of dental hygienists who are looking for the nearest exit out of the profession, and that's a shame.

Dislikes: Dental assisting (Kevin Henry)

-1. The future of togetherness

IgniteDA.net was started to fill a void we’ve noticed in organized membership. The impact of membership organizations on today’s dental assistant (and dental professional overall in any role) is lessening. We feel this is unfortunate but a fact of our industry today. However, you can’t operate in the same manner as the last 20 years. The needs of today’s assistant are different than the one who came into the profession five, 10 or 20 years ago. Different times call for different needs, and that includes knowing the needs of today’s assistant and how his or her role is changing in the practice. Face-to-face meetings are shrinking while online learning is growing.

-2. The word “just”

If there is one pet peeve I have about dental assistants, it’s the way that they constantly demean themselves in conversation. I have heard so many assistants introduce themselves as “just an assistant.” They almost seem embarrassed to say what they do . . . and that is a huge disappointment knowing the power that every dental assistant holds. Eric Church has a song called “Kill a Word” where he talks about all of the words he would strike from the English language if he could. For me, that word is “just.” Eliminate that from your vocabulary, assistants! You are not “just an assistant.” You are the assistant. As I have told my daughter since the day she was born, if you don’t believe in yourself and the power you hold, who else is going to?

-3. The grass is greener

The dental assisting profession has lost so many amazing assistants because they thought their career was a dead end or not important enough. They look at hygienists and see more money and respect and think that’s the way to go. They are tired of being perceived as the bottom rung on the dental practice’s priority ladder. I know so many assistants who left their careers never to return because things look so good on the other side of the fence. Some have even left dentistry because of the allure of what might be. There are so many opportunities for assistants to grow their careers if they’ll just explore their options. Sadly, many never do.

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