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Advocacy 101: Being a champion for oral health

June 10, 2021
Dental hygienists are natural advocates—and advocacy doesn't have to mean politics. Now that the rest of the health-care world has finally realized that oral health matters, your voice is more important than ever.

Crystal R. Spring, BSDH, RDH, LAP
Alyssa Aberle, MBA, BSDH, RDH

Dental hygienists are advocates by definition. We advocate for our patients constantly. We advocate for their oral health, their overall health, and their rights to equitable and affordable preventative care.

So, why does advocacy seem outside of our wheelhouse when it comes to expanding our scope of practice and protecting our profession? I think many of us lean away from advocacy because it seems to be tied to legislation and politics. And while that part of advocacy is crucial, it encompasses so much more. Advocacy is about people; It’s about health and improving communities.

Advocacy may be more natural for you than you think. It begins with communication. You share your expertise on disease prevention with your patients during every appointment. You make each patient aware of what they need to know to make the right decisions for their health. When you are advocating for our profession, you are doing the same thing.

Unfortunately, many of our legislators and community partners in other branches of health-care do not know enough about dental hygiene to create solutions on their own. That is where you come in. Advocacy starts at a much smaller scale, in your day-to-day practice, and can include so much more like research, relationship building, and community partnerships.

Building relationships and practicing high standards

There is no better place to begin your work as an oral health champion than where you are right now. Where do you interact on a day-to-day basis with the dental/medical professionals and the patients we want to help? In your practice—whether it is a traditional dental practice, public health clinic, mobile dental or dental hygiene practice, DSO, medical practice, hospital-based setting, nursing home, or any other setting.

Where better to start than with who you know and what you know? Begin by having conversations with your patients about your education and degree, continuing education courses that you have taken recently, and your licensure process. The more we educate, the more they will recognize that we are the prevention specialists.

Similarly, have conversations with the dentist, dental assistant, and office manager in your practice and start to talk about what each team member can bring to the table and how we can work together to build stronger teams. Elevate your practice by researching and learning about new products, techniques, and existing standards so that your team can bring the best care to your patients. This is advocacy. You are advocating for your patients’ health by using your voice to educate.

Connecting with our community

Building community and finding like-minded professionals are essential to advocacy work. There are many avenues to connect within the hygiene community, and not all of them require a huge time commitment.

If you’re not already involved in online dental hygiene platforms, now is the time. There are so many online discussion boards, social media groups, and virtual continuing education courses. These are a great place to connect with dental hygienists and other medical and dental professionals.

Joining professional associations is another great way to connect with colleagues. ADHA, and your state dental hygiene association, offer several opportunities to network. Collaborating with other dental hygienists will almost definitely inspire you to think about the future of our profession and how we can support each other and our communities by working together.

Collaborating with other stakeholders

One of the less obvious ways to engage in advocacy work is to begin reaching out to other professionals who are not directly related to the dental profession, but who may have a shared interest in improving community health or other broader issues such as license portability and interprofessional collaboration.

Some of the most engaged stakeholders in the work we’re doing include organizations like local foundations working on social equity, children’s Hospital staff and leadership, local health foundations, leadership or clinical staff at senior nursing facilities, and more.

Creating relationships with these other professionals and organizations can provide funding for research and advocacy, as well as can also build broader support for legislative issues. The preventive services and education dental hygienists provide are proven to have an impact on social equity, decrease costs and burden on the health-care system, and improve patient experience.

Medical-dental integration is finally a “thing”. Other health professionals recognize the impact of the oral-systemic link and the significance of medical-dental integration. The medical community has never been more ready to address oral health issues than right now. The more we collaborate, the stronger our voices will be—and ultimately the healthier our communities will be. Interprofessional collaboration is essential to the betterment of our nation's health. 

Communication is key

If you want your voice to be heard, your ideas recognized, and to impact change, you need to say something. Connecting with the dental hygiene community and like-minded professionals will give you the right tools to dip your toes to test the waters of advocacy. Don’t be intimidated by the legislative process, and what you don’t know. Instead, begin with what you do know and start talking about it.

You don’t need to be prepared to write legislation from day one. There are many ways to get involved. More than anything, our profession needs you. We need dental hygienists who are committed to their patients, our profession, and the overall health of our communities. Begin by reaching out to ADHA, your state associations, and local coalitions. These organizations are an excellent source of information and support. ADHA has been engaged in advocacy work for oral health for over 100 years and can be a great place to start.

🧠  Editor’s note: Learn more from Crystal Spring and Alyssa Aberlee about advocacy at a special RDH Under One Roof workshop happening Friday, July 23, 2021. Participants will be able to learn about the different ways you can get involved in advocacy efforts, collaborate with others to think creatively about engaging stakeholders and building partnerships, and hear from change makers around the country about successes and failures in advocacy work. Learn more and register at rdhunderoneroof.com.