100 years of dental hygiene: What can we do to thrive, not just survive?

In 1906, Dr. Alfred Fones trained the first dental hygienist after a concern about the amount of people who were losing teeth to dental caries and periodontal disease. How far has dental hygiene come since then? Laurie Samuels, RDH, CHC, Certified Health Coach, takes a look at how today’s dental hygiene profession can move forward and not just exist.

Alfred Fones Fo

In 1906, Dr. Fones trained the first dental hygienist. It was not a time when many women worked outside of the home. In fact, in 1920 about 21% of the workforce was comprised of women.(1) Three out of four women were working in domestic service, farming or factory work and most single women workers usually stopped working when they got married. Occasionally widows or women whose husbands could not find employment often went back to work.

Alfred Fones Fo

Dr. Fones was concerned about the amount of people losing teeth to dental caries and periodontal disease.(2) I love that his vision was to serve the patients and his intention was about health and wellness. The idea of preventing disease is a topic that is current and relevant today. I wonder what Dr. Fones would say if he were here to see the evolution of dentistry and health care? I wonder if he considered the link between oral health and systemic health and if he would be pleased with the progress we have made?

Irene Newman Fo

Irene Newman

Imagine what it was like to be a dental hygienist in 1920! I am sure there were many challenges, like standing for hours, using relatively primitive instruments, not really understanding about infection control, and poor sterilization, just to name a few difficult items. The advent of dental hygiene was truly the beginning of a new era in dentistry.

I don’t think dentists were advertising their skills in cosmetic dentistry in 1920, instead they were probably trying to keep up with controlling infections and helping patients escape pain. Patients were not seen on a regular basis and most likely did not look forward to a visit to the dental office. It must have been difficult for the first dental hygienists to educate the patients about preventive care. And it is quite unbelievable that we still deal with this issue today!

Early Samuels Fo

Laurie in the early days

There are many hygienists looking for jobs, and I know they are feeling frustrated and discouraged. Dental hygienists, who want to excel in the work place and the world, must continue their education and find their niche in the marketplace. It is important to be confident about our worth in the dental practice and then relay this information to the practice owner. It is easy enough to track the treatments we have recommended and which patients followed through with our suggested treatment. This translates to dollars for the practice and makes the dental hygienist a valuable asset.

The most important thing of all is to continue our education. I believe this is the most critical component in helping our profession thrive and not just survive, and there are many ways to do this beyond the required Continuing Education Units (CEUs).

Samuels Now Fo

Laurie now

Working out of an office setting is something we are seeing ever more. Dental hygienists are working as consultants, salespeople, educators, speakers and business owners. Having an RDH credential should be looked at as a beginning, not the end goal. We can make ourselves more desirable by discovering our passion and thinking out of the box to find our place in the business world.

In addition, in a clinical dental or dental hygiene practice setting, we need to help make the office where we practice stand out from other practices in the area. There are new products that we can use to monitor systemic health and bring a new kind of business to the dental practice.

For the profession of dental hygiene to move forward, we need to work on gaining confidence and self-esteem, and be independent thinkers. I believe the original description of our job is still the essence of how we will carry on into the future. The big difference is that we will support our patients' overall health through disease prevention. We can no longer just address dental caries and periodontal disease as if the head were an island. I equate oral health to the canary in a coal mine. When oral health is poor, the rest of the body will suffer in some way as well.

Dental Hygiene Fo

If Dr. Fones were alive today, I think he would be pleased to see many of the amazing advances in dentistry and dental hygiene. New products and technology are exciting and sometimes fun. But like me, he would probably want more. The total health and wellness of our patients is at risk and we need to be part of the solution. To achieve this we need to stay focused on the goal of serving our patients and preventing disease. We have all the tools, now we just need to make the commitment.

Let’s take dental hygiene to the next dimension. Find your passion and do something with that, the next generation is counting on us.

1. http://www.dol.gov/wb/info_about_wb/interwb.htm
2. http://www.cdha-rdh.com/home/historyofdentalhygiene.html

Laurie Samuels FoLaurie Samuels, RDH, CHC, is a Certified Holistic Health Coach in the greater Philadelphia area. Her focus is health, wellness, and fitness. She can be reached at www.bellahealthyliving.com.

To read previous RDH eVillage FOCUS articles by Laurie Samuels, click here.

To read more about the history of dental hygiene, click here.

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