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Dental hygiene: A constant battle for career respect

Sept. 5, 2019
The fight for respect as a dental hygienist probably dates back to Irene Newman. Here are four ways RDHs can earn the respect afforded other members of the dental team.

Many of us as dental hygienist have gone through the same battle: we feel disrespected and undervalued. Many patients call us "technicians," "assistants," or "nurses." Our employer-dentist will tell a patient that she doesn’t need scaling and root planing first; instead she needs an immediate extraction of the third molar that is not causing discomfort. Then there are the dental specialists who think we should provide care the same way for every patient, no matter if the patient has implants, dentures, crowns, or may I dare say tori. Oh, and lest we forget that the dental company your employer purchases from claims there are no studies about different forms of biofilm disruption . . .

As a fairly new hygienist, I cannot understand how hygienist have not completely lost it in these situations. So, I’ve tried to come up with a few ways to battle this ongoing, ancient battle for respect that's probably as old as Irene Newman.

Your introduction

Always introduce yourself to first-time patients as their dental hygienist. Not only that, but explain what your job is. Obviously, don’t give them an educational seminar. (With all we have to do, who has time for that?!) I like to explain to my patients that I take care of their oral health in a more preventative and less invasive way, as well as setting goals for their oral health. 

Earn respect

Earn respect from the patient. How, you may ask? Don’t be a stranger! I like to talk to my patients and get to know them. I see the patient as a friend I haven’t seen in three to six months and we are catching up. Most people don’t respect strangers, but they do respect their friends.

When it comes to your employer-dentist . . .

We have to give our employer-dentists credit, right? They have endured an even longer educational path with an even higher liability risk. What I try to do is before having the dentist do the exam, I record notes on the side with findings. Sometimes, if time permits it, I can explain my findings. This puts the dentist on the same page as you, and the patient will be more confident in the treatment plan required.

Educate yourself!

The most important way to defeat "challenging" dental specialists and sales reps is to educate yourself. I have found that many periodontists and oral surgeons may be placing implants, but they don’t know how to advise their patients on implant maintenance! Sales reps like to say that "studies have shown that 'blah blah blah' does not improve hygiene." Well, as I have done in the past, send them a study! Do the research and find one.

This all may seem like a lot to follow. However, as dental hygienists who have definitely gone through tortuous clinical and written exams, I believe we should be as respected as any other crucial member of the dental field. I would encourage all dental hygienist to continue to earn respect, not only for yourself, but for our profession. 

Before becoming a dental hygienist, Mary Russo, RDH, thought her career goal was to become a CPA. It wasn’t long until she found out she was wrong and decided to attend Bergen Community College to become a dental hygienist, which is now a career she loves. She is currently attending online classes to obtain her bachelor's in business management and aspires to become an implant-care practitioner as well a dental office consultant.