Finding a mentor: Exploring the 11 shades of dental hygiene

Sept. 6, 2016
Elicia Lupoli, RDH, identifies the 11 "shades" of dental hygiene. They are dental hygienists who could help their profession through mentoring (but some don't).

By Elicia Lupoli, RDH, BSDH

Career development and advancement can be difficult to obtain alone. Among the abundance of dental hygienists practicing throughout the United States, many still do not a have a support system.

While writing a research paper a few years back, my classmates and I discovered that the mentor-mentee relationship is critical for success in all health-care professions. The professionals who did not have a mentor were more likely to experience burnout.

The most successful and versatile women (and men) in dental hygiene have at least one mentor. If you have ever been to an RDH Under One Roof conference or an ADHA Center for Lifelong Learning and listened to a key opinion leader (KOL) speak, you will see the relationship in action. The support, encouragement, and friendships radiate around the room.

The challenge is finding the right person to be our mentor. We may have difficulty identifying with those in close proximity, such as a coworker or educator. With social media, texting, Skype, FaceTime, and all the various ways we can contact others, distance is no longer an issue and convenience is easily established.

During my journey in search of a mentor, I discovered many personalities, which I refer to below as shades. Until a foundation is established in a relationship, we cannot be sure of someone's true character and intent.

One: Chat and Polish

This type of dental hygienist is not concerned about dental disease or oral health promotion and prevention. Rather, he or she likes to have conversations with patients about anything other than dentistry and, sometimes worse, only themselves. They might use one instrument throughout the entire mouth on every type of dental patient, and one type of prophy paste—coarse!

Two: 'I really wanted to be a nurse'

This group of dental hygienists started by having the greatest intentions in their hygiene careers, with concern for whole body education. For some reason or another, they did not end up diving into the world of medicine. Often, they are the ones who can help evolve dental hygiene and guide the profession into primary health care, but fell short due to not having mentors and guidance, or a terrible boss/position. They see the nursing profession as more respected and feel that career change is the only way.

Three: 'I am the professional organization'

This RDH is all about politics and believes there is a conspiracy theory among dental hygienists. They usually have a lot to say and not a lot to do with minimal action. They berate those who aren't members of an association, rather than listening to what the people want and using those facts for their political conquests.

Four: The conditional mentor

This is someone you may have met, or may meet, along your career journey that puts on their game face and sees dollar signs in you. They usually have their own agenda and/or business and adding you will serve them. They want to "mentor" you with conditions. If you sign up with them, they will network you and provide you with the foundation to be successful and financially independent. If you do and believe exactly what they say, then you will become the best hygienist, just like them! (You do not need someone to tell you that you are great because you are great!)

Five: The key opinionator

This type of RDH gives meaning to the word confidence. They are powerful and akin to a KOL. They are smart, quick on their feet, and know how to demand attention and respect. They also generally only give advice and mentor you if or when you have something to offer them. (There are plenty of powerful RDH KOLs who will help you because they are authentic and had help from a mentor too.)

Six: The graduate

This is one of the most impressionable RDHs out there. They are the future of this profession, and should be taken seriously and respected for joining us during this time of job saturation and chaos. They passed their boards and made it through years of intense schooling just like the rest of us. They are smart about technology and have learned the most current applications. They lack the "field" experience and may need a guide, just as veterans did at the beginning. If they are not welcomed and accepted, but are instead bullied and ignored when asking for help, they can turn into any of the other nine shades.

Seven: The non-dental dental hygienist

These are dental professionals who say, “Listen to me,” even when you know they haven't touched a patient in years. They may be educators, consultants, etc. They know more than anyone in clinical dentistry, even if they haven't picked up an instrument in 20 years, had to deliver a $10k treatment plan to an uninsured patient, or see an adult patient every 30 minutes during an eight-hour day. They have profound knowledge, but forget that treating patients is different than educating students and hygienists.

Eight: The seasoned hygienist

These hygienists have experienced it all since the beginning of their careers. They worked without gloves, put themselves at unknown risks when infection control wasn’t the way it is today. They truly are valued for growing dental hygiene into the current profession. They are used to being the all-knowing and believe there is only one way—their way. They may not attend CEU unless their office pays and goes as a whole team. They may belittle new technologies and may be afraid of the word paperless. If someone younger or less experienced than them presents a new idea or newer skill, they will knock it down without even listening, because it wasn't "their" idea or perhaps do not know that skill. They lack the courage to value change and may take out their fears on the new RDH in private or public.

Nine: The one-subject wonders

This type of RDH is brilliant in research. But he or she lacks any sort of communication skills for sharing insights to fellow colleagues. They may be publicly disrespectful to others and attempt to bring dentists to defeat with their intellect. They do not believe in anything but Pub Med (a fabulous resource, by the way) and forget that the second part of evidenced-based decision-making is clinical judgment.

Ten: The business adventurer

These RDHs are making "extra income" on the side selling alternatives. If you say you would like a career change on Facebook, they will message you and tell you how much money they have made working for a new diet fad company or "all natural" skin care line. When you proceed to sign up, you find out it will cost a lot of initial investment, which defeats your current purpose. They may also have a great side job with potential wonderful income earnings, yet after you sign the contract you realize that if they sell their company you get to keep nothing, not even your clients.

Eleven: Perfect

The rest of us! Dental hygienists are amazing health-care professionals. We band together throughout any medium available and offer feedback to each other. We face criticism frequently, have been compared to others who received a certification in six to 12 weeks, and can go into work and be bullied within 11 minutes. When politicians or a TV series tries to scrutinize us in the public eye, we rally to become even stronger. Many of us face ethical issues daily with our jobs, yet we continue to look after our patients. As a whole, we have to deal with the fact that we are the only health-care profession governed by another health-care profession.

Try to befriend a dental hygienist and build a network whether at work, school, home community, or social media. We have to stick together to survive and more importantly thrive. Having a mentor can mean the difference between having a job or not, and having professional success or burnout.

Acknowledgement: Thank you Patti for telling me that I needed to find a purpose! In addition, I would like to thank the AmyRDH online forum for their discussions about the "chat and polish hygienist."

Elicia Lupoli, RDH, BSDH, is a Fones School of Dental Hygiene graduate who recently started to share her success with patients and passion for the industry through writing. She is the owner of a small LinkedIn group called "Dental Mentors" and advocates for mentorship throughout her endeavors. She attributes the start of her writing journey to Shirley Gutkowski, RDH, BSDH after meeting her at CareerFusion 2016. To contact her, send an email to [email protected].