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Growing and expanding your preventive role

July 22, 2020
Anna Dacosta, RDH, was not happy practicing clinical dental hygiene. She teamed up with Angie Stone, RDH, to change the direction of her career and provide more preventive care in the community.

Since the profession’s inception, dental hygienists have worked to increase access to optimum dental hygiene care throughout the world, and provide care based on the evidence derived from research and practice.1 Being part of a growing profession can be inspiring if you want to expand your current career. If your career seems stagnant and you want to grow, where do you start? We believe there are opportunities working with underserved populations. Vulnerable populations are in need of preventive dental services but may encounter barriers in accessing that care at dental offices because oral health care is provided predominantly by dentists in private practice settings. Efforts to use new sites of care or types of professionals have been controversial and polarizing.2

Many of us remember the incredible feeling after graduating from dental hygiene school. The ability to improve oral health was in our hands and we were fully prepared to take on the challenge. Focusing on which path in dental hygiene would be the most satisfying was important. If we chose clinical dental hygiene in the private practice, it may have become unsatisfying. As much as we help patients who seek oral health care in private practices, reaching other populations feels important to do.

These other populations include individuals who are vulnerable and cannot find their ways to private practices due to barriers such as finances or transportation. We know they, like the patients treated in private practices, would benefit from the preventive therapies provided by dental hygienists. Also, the demand for dental services will increase as the population ages. As baby boomers age and keep more of their teeth than people in previous generations, the need to maintain and treat teeth will drive demand for dental care.3

My career path

Advancing my education was always in the books for me, literally. Pun intended. I had a desire to pursue other avenues and I was not sure what might stand in my way of following those dreams. I obtained my bachelor’s in health care management before I started dental hygiene school. This opened the door for a master’s degree. My real career spark was when I discovered the master’s in dental hygiene education and public health program! It was the best of both worlds. I enhanced my education in dental hygiene while adding opportunities to clinical practice.

While in the master’s program, a practicum required students to seek a mentor and complete an externship. The goal was to practice current skills and learn new ones at an externship site. A person I was introduced to through the podcast, A Tale of Two Hygienists, immediately caught my interest.

A few years ago, while driving to work in a private practice, I was listening to hygienists Andrew Johnston and Michelle Strange. They were interviewing Angie Stone, BS, RDH. My lack of passion for clinical hygiene made me feel like an outcast until I heard Angie speak about how she and other hygienists were using their skills outside of the dental office. She talked about how her group was serving one of the most vulnerable populations in our country—the elderly.

The podcast discussed Angie’s company, the HyLife Oral Health Alliance (HOHA). They talked about how services are provided to fill the need for oral care among elders living in care communities while providing hygienists the opportunity to enhance their career satisfaction. They also explained that HOHA is a group of inspiring dental hygienists who are taking the oral health of elders into their creative hands.

Our practicum externships aimed to provide services to organizations and share our experiences. I wondered if Angie and HOHA could benefit from an extern for the summer. I took a chance and reached out to her, and it led to my exciting opportunity to be mentored by Angie. We immediately started brainstorming our goals for the course of my externship.

I told Angie how I felt isolated because I wanted more options outside of clinical dentistry. She said she knew many hygienists who would love more opportunities, and it was a relief to know I wasn’t the only one. What did not make sense to me was this: If many hygienists want to do things other than clinical hygiene, why aren’t they? Angie and I believe there are barriers that prevent hygienists from making career changes. On both the state and national levels, dental hygiene is a profession in transition and facing a variety of workforce challenges.4

In light of this, one of the projects we decided to organize was to conduct a survey to identify potential barriers. We felt collecting data from hygienists was an important step toward understanding our colleagues and creating valuable resources to help hygienists achieve career satisfaction. The survey questions offered an enjoyable way for hygienists to share their barriers. With support from HOHA and Elijah Desmond of the Trapped in an OP Facebook group, we sent out the survey, and 355 hygienists participated. See the results of two of the questions in Figures 1 and 2.
Based on these results, it’s important for hygienists to have the resources to conquer these perceived barriers. The top three most helpful resources are:
  • Working with a coach or financial professional to create a finan­cial plan.
  • Seek out a mentor who has already forged a new path.
  • Become a member of uplifting groups where like-minded individuals gather. These can be found on social media, within ADHA groups, and in conjunction with dental hygiene meetings such as RDH Under One Roof.

The journey that was simply my dream has become a reality. My willingness to take one step and then another turned into an amazing learning experience. If I had buried my desire to seek more opportunities and had not reached out to Angie to work with her and HOHA, I would still be a full-time, not-so-fulfilled, private practice dental hygienist. While the resources listed in this article are helpful, the most critical thing is to get yourself started. Take one step and keep moving forward. Career satisfaction can be a foggy journey and the road cannot be forged without that first step. 

1.    Basile SV, Born DO. Dental hygiene workforce issues: A Minnesota study. J Dent Hyg. 2007;81(1):11.
2.    Advancing Oral Health in America. Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. Washington DC. The National Academies Press. 2011.
3.    Occupational Outlook Handbook. Dental Hygienists. US Bureau of Labor Statistics website. December 6, 2019. Accessed January 18, 2020.
4.    Nathe CN. Dental public health & research: Contemporary practice for the dental hygienist. 4th edition. Boston: Pearson Publishing. 2017.

Anna Dacosta, BS, RDH, has a bachelor’s degree in health-care management. She practiced clinical hygiene and is a part-time technical lab specialist for dental hygiene students in Fort Pierce, Florida. She is currently pursuing her master’s in dental hygiene education and public health. She enjoys yoga, traveling, and spending time with her dogs.