Lifelong Learning Through a Hygienist's Eyes

May 15, 2013
Christa Crilley McConaghy, RDH, describes how O'Hehir University revitalized her career.

By Christa Crilley McConaghy, RDH, PHDHP

Tell an audience full of people from various age ranges and cultures, and who have had many different life experiences, to picture a beach scene in their mind. Chances are that each person will envision something different. Some may see a crowd of sunbathers. Others will see themselves alone on secluded beach, frolicking in the sand. Some will see high-rise hotels along golden beaches, yet others see small bungalows being swallowed up by dunes.

Ask a hygienist to picture his or her career within a dental office. Some may think of a small family practice inside an old building in the center of a small town, catching up with patients, some of whom are now considered old friends. Others will see a hectic schedule full of drama in a big mega practice. Hopefully, most will think positively about patient care. But some will see their hands being tied when it comes to the services they can provide. Ideally, we will all see a practice in which we are respected and valued — not just by our patients but our dental colleagues as well.

I Expected a Career, But I Got a Job

As long as I can remember, I always wanted to be a dental hygienist. Terri, my childhood hygienist, always impressed upon me that her role was to be that of a co-diagnostician, whose responsibility was to prevent disease. It was the hygienist’s role to keep you healthy so you didn’t need a dentist to fix any problems. Funny, it seems, that as we debate the issue of health-care reform, we are now re-visiting an issue that seemed obvious to me as a child. A health-care professional not only helps you get well when you’re sick, they help ensure you don’t get sick in the first place.

When I began working in dental hygiene 16 years ago, I never gave thought to where I would take my career over the years. I figured that I would graduate with my associate’s degree, pass my state boards, and begin a career with a dentist who would allow me to treat patients the way I was trained to do. I thought that my fellow employees would have the same philosophy of dentistry that I did and be a sounding board for my ideas. I pictured lunchtime discussions about patient care and bringing new oral health-care ideas into our practice. I’d attend some continuing education classes every year, and patients would know that I was educated and had dental knowledge and would hang on my every word.

One day it occurred to me that I fell into the trap that most hygienists get sucked into. I punched the clock, provided care prescribed by dentists to patients, and went home. I divided my time between many offices and worked with many dental professionals who had different ideas about the role that I play in oral health care. I let my dreams of impacting a practice slip away. This wasn’t a career; this was a job!

I Didn’t Know Dental Hygienists Could Do That!

I realized my desire to influence dentistry again approximately one year ago when a newly licensed dentist was hired at the practice in which I had been employed for the last nine years. After learning how the practice was run, he was assigned to do the hygiene exams for the day. The time finally came for his first exam in the real world!

Being the motivator I am, I gave him a pep talk before he walked into my room. “You’ve been training for this for years. I will cover you. As always, I have done my periodontal exam, oral cancer screening, caries assessment, and radiographs. I left a slip of yellow paper on the table behind the patient’s chair. On that paper, I have written my clinical and radiographic findings. The patient has already been informed of the suspicious areas I have seen, and I’ve spoken to him about restorative options should you find treatment necessary. Go get ‘em, Doc!”

The exam went on without a hitch. We played off each other well. His next statement floored me. “I didn’t know hygienists could do that!” Double gut punch. “What? What do you think I do?” This made me think. Hygienists are more than accessories in a practice. We have education, experience, values, and beliefs.

I realized that I had been working for others to whose dental philosophy I had to adapt. I had not been given the opportunity to implement much of my knowledge into my practices. I had put my career on the back burner while waiting for someone to give me permission to explore my potential. I found myself questioning whether or not I should have chosen this field.

A Newfound Passion for a Career in Dental Hygiene

This is when I knew that, in order for me to grow as a clinical practitioner and patient educator, I needed a change. I needed to find a group of mentors who had a vision of dentistry beyond what we see every day. I’ve found that in O’Hehir University. It is here that I finally found the colleagues I was searching for. It is a place where we can rediscover the potential we have as dental hygienists to bring oral health care to the front burner. It allows us to see ourselves as more than a trivial fraction of a practice.

The university brings together a group of licensed hygiene students who brainstorm ideas via electronic communication. It is here that we, the students, act as our own teachers guided by mentors, colleagues, and peers. O’Hehir University is an environment where we reflect upon our experiences and learn from them. It is where we learn that we have the ability to change oral healthcare by changing how we view dentistry and our role in it. It is a place where we can earn the degree that has eluded some of us for many years, a bachelor’s degree in oral health-care promotion.

I have found, through self-discovery and the self-reflection teaching style that O’Hehir University utilizes that I have the ability to teach the public and dentists too about the enormous potential hygienists have in a dental practice and oral health care in general. We are not an appendage to a large body, but the heart of the office. We teach our patients every day about their oral health and how they can improve themselves. I have learned through this program that I have the ability to improve myself as a clinical dental professional and business promoter.

During my months in this degree completion program, I have reshaped in my mind and can envision what I want my future to look like. I can also envision a future of O’Hehir University graduates impacting dentistry in such dramatic ways using the skills we have acquired in this program and learning to view ourselves, and oral health care, through a hygienist’s eyes. A future filled with thousands of professional dental hygienists who have found their voice and have been guided by their O’Hehir University mentors to believe, as I have, that we are providers of care, experts with years of training and experience.

Now, when I picture my career within a dental office, I see my future dental practice, ever changing, as I am. I see a beautifully lit office with a sign by the front door with my name engraved alongside my co-diagnostician’s name. I see a patient, upon completion of his appointment, asking me for the results of his salivary test and inquiring about the best products for arresting his incipient decay. I see my employer collaborating with me and embracing my request to implement new diagnostic procedures and dental hygiene business plans for the office.

Dental hygiene is no longer just a job; it’s a career — and I love it!

Christa Crilley McConaghy, RDH, PHDHP,can be contacted at [email protected].