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Counselor's corner: Saving dental hygiene—who is responsible?

March 4, 2020
When it comes to changing the dental hygiene profession, you're more powerful than you think.

If you read this column on a regular basis, you know that I often focus on personal responsibility and how it contributes to burnout. On a daily basis, I am becoming more disheartened by the negativity and the dissatisfaction I read on social media groups about being a dental hygienist. It seems we have a multitude of workforce issues that feel unresolvable. I read about hygienists being sent home early because of cancelled patients, not getting raises for decades, the inability to get requested needed supplies from the dentist, and the fact that there are still four states that prohibit dental hygienist–administered local anesthesia. Every time I read a post about how someone escaped the perils of dental hygiene and is moving on to bigger and better things, I cannot help but ache for my students who are bright-eyed and ready to save the world from periodontal disease.

I have many opinions on these issues surrounding personal responsibility. This morning, on my way to work, I was speaking with my state association’s legislative chair. This conversation inspired me to look deeper into myself as a young hygienist when I was not a part of my national or state association for all those years. I think about those years and the expectations I had for other people to make things happen for my profession. I would hear the news about changes the state association was trying to make and clap my hands and say, “Wonderful! They are making great strides!” The truth is that I never knew who “they” were.

This led me to think more about how that translates in the world of dental hygiene from a national standpoint. Have hygienists who are looking for a way out considered their roles in advocacy and how they may personally make a difference for change? After all, most of us entered this profession wanting to be helpers and make a difference for others. How does this enthusiasm so quickly dissolve into feeling burned out? I wonder if there is a way to reach back into our minds to those times of feeling empowered and use that energy to unite and level-up the profession of dental hygiene.

Janessa Bock, RDH, is the Texas Dental Hygienists’ Association legislative director. She has worked tirelessly the past two years to pass an anesthesia bill for Texas hygienists—one of the only states still deficient and left behind in dental hygiene scope of practice. Bock states, “When legislation ends, our profession seems to be very reactive and upset change didn’t happen. If we want any change in our profession, whether it be with workforce issues or legislation, we have got to be proactive.” Even though Texas has an active session every other year, advocacy work never stops. Legislators want to hear from constituents in the interim. This is a crucial time to connect and promote our profession. Bock goes on to say, “I hear a lot of the time, ‘I am really busy and don’t have the time.’ I completely understand that. It only takes a minute. By the time you scan through social media newsfeeds or order a coffee, you can contact your legislator about what matters to you. We always think the grass is greener on the other side, but each profession has issues they are dealing with. This is why we have coalitions—we come together on a mutual issue.”1

If each of us did one small thing between legislative sessions in our respective regions, perhaps we could move mountains. Could we unite in a way that would elevate us to a level that we have never experienced? Could every state have anesthesia? Could every state have dental therapists and begin reaching underserved populations? You might be thinking that your role is insignificant in the big picture of change and that you do not have enough influence. You do not have to take on a big task like chairing a committee to make a difference. All of us reaching out in even the smallest ways could be groundbreaking. Here are a few things you can do to be involved in advocacy:

  • Join the American Dental Hygienists' Association. Money is needed for things like paying a lobbyist. Just the act of paying your dues is a huge step toward change.
  • Reach out to someone in your local component and ask what issues are on the table for next session. Write, call, or visit your representative or senator. A short email or phone call to introduce yourself and let your legislator know the issues makes a lasting impression.
  • Go to https://whoismyrepresentative.com. By simply typing in your zip code, this website will inform you of your congressperson, senator, and representatives. This site has a wealth of information on how to contact your legislators.

As Bock stated, these actions take only minutes of our time. We all live busy lives and may not be available to take on large tasks, but we all can carve out time to send an email or make a phone call. Imagine the volume of our collective voices if we were to show up as a united front that protected our standards and elevated us to the next level.


  1. Bock J. 2019. Personal interview.
Kandice Swarthout, RDH, LPC, is a registered dental hygienist and licensed professional counselor. She is a full-time dental hygiene educator in Texas. Kandice is the owner of Inspired Education & Wellness where she combines her clinical dental and mental health experience to help other health-care professionals have a fulfilling work/life experience.

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