How to embrace the phrase, ‘Oh, you’re just a hygienist!’

Oct. 11, 2016
Candice Feagle, RDH, describes how she now embraces the phrase, "Oh, you're just a hygienist!"  

By Candice Feagle, RDH, BS

I am certain that every hygienist has heard the phrase, “Oh, you’re just a hygienist.” I recently attended a function, and someone I was introduced to uttered the dreaded phrase. The “just” hit me in the chest as if I was wearing a shirt with a bull’s-eye on it. Everyone around us continued to engage in their conversations, and I noticed I was the only person in the room that actually reacted to the “just.”

I continued to smile and shrugged the comment off with a giggle. However, the next day I started thinking about it and came to the conclusion that I am absolutely untroubled and at peace with being referred to as “just a hygienist.” I know that, at this point, fellow dental hygienists are puzzled. Let me explain my epiphany.

Having been in the dental profession for the last 26 years, I can honestly say I love my profession. I started my dental career as a dental assistant and decided to become a dental hygienist to expand my skills and knowledge. As I have been practicing dental hygiene for the last 17 years, I recently decided to obtain a bachelor’s degree in allied dental health to explore the nonclinical side of dental hygiene. The course work for my degree inspired me to think about what the phrase really means because I have myself thought, “I am just a dental hygienist,” at different periods during my career.

For my practicum, I conducted a literature review on alternative careers in dental hygiene and spoke to senior hygiene students, explaining the different career pathways available to them as hygienists. This experience not only helped me explore my own career options but allowed me to develop my skills as a lecturer. This brings me to my internal response when I hear the phrase, “Oh, you’re just a hygienist” and why I have decided to embrace this phrase going forward.

Yes, I am just a hygienist:

  • Yes, I just bring my patient into the operatory with a smile on my face and a sunny disposition in order to ease my patient’s anxiety level during their dental visit.
  • Yes, I just review the patient’s medical history with them verbally because sometimes when patients are nervous they forget to write valuable medical information down on forms.
  • Yes, I just take my patients blood pressure before performing any dental hygiene treatment to ensure they are in good health and can tolerate any procedures without incident.
  • Yes, I just talk to my patient for 45 minutes while I am “cleaning teeth” in order to help them feel comfortable and more importantly assess their stress level while gaining insight into their overall health.
  • Yes, I just perform oral cancer screenings, periodontal charting, decay assessments, oral hygiene assessments, sealant placements, fluoride treatments, detailed explanations regarding dental treatments, and deal with any other overall health concerns they may have, often referring them back to their physician.
  • Yes, I just sterilize the operatory, equipment, and dental instruments according to state regulations to ensure the health and safety of my patients and myself.
  • Yes, I just obtained my bachelor’s degree in allied dental health, completed continuing education requirements, maintained my local anesthesia license, maintained my dental hygiene license, maintained my nitrous oxide administration credits, and continue to research dental technology to ensure that my patients are receiving the best dental hygiene care possible.

I am sure that some of you reading this article could add your own “just” to the list as well. Dental hygienists can also just become educators, corporate professionals, public health professionals, administrators, researchers, and entrepreneurs.

I know the varied abilities and diverse opportunities being a hygienist represents. Still, I've chosen to fully embrace the phrase, "you're just a hygienist." Why? I do so to follow the brilliant and humble example of the Dalai Lama who once said, "I describe myself as a simple Buddhist monk. No more, no less." My fellow hygienists, I hope you are proud to be just hygienists!

Candice Feagle RDH, BS, is a licensed dental hygienist in New Jersey with 26 years of experience in the dental profession. She has provided oral care to communities in Israel and participated in organizing other dental mission trips. She has educated dental hygiene students at Rutgers University in the classroom and in a clinical setting as well. For more information, email her at [email protected].