Free the Reins

July 1, 2005
Unbridled horses running in an open meadow have free reign. They gallop along, frolic, and merrily roll on the ground; they are content in the pasture.

Unbridled horses running in an open meadow have free reign. They gallop along, frolic, and merrily roll on the ground; they are content in the pasture. When the horse takes on a bridle, however, harsh handling of the reins may cause the mare to grab the bit. When a befuddled horse grabs the bit, the rider then loses needed communication with the obstinate mount. Comparatively, a positive working environment in which the hygienist has fewer restrictions and is capable of independent thinking allows individual identity to shine through. This important need for a forward-thinking hygienist must be recognized and not perceived as a threat by the doctor or team. Optimism for the entire team is integral for smooth office flow, comprehensive patient education in a relaxing environment, and first-rate treatment. So, how are hygienists viewed in your pasture? Are they the steeds which gallop freely with enthusiasm, perform professionally, and have a splendid attitude? Or are they so tightly reined in that they have little to whinny about?

Having once been in a tightly reined working environment, I know that hygienists can become professionally restless. In this restraining environment, the practice discouraged individual thoughts and required every hygienist to perform robot-like prophylaxis in the same exacting manner, never straying from the office’s established norm. No creative home-care recommendations could be offered by the hygienist, because every patient was given the same scripted dialogue with the same home-care items. This working environment proved dull. The doctor was viewed by the patients as being “extremely thorough.” Although being detail-driven was a positive trait of that doctor, any hygienist could hang up her license and follow the prescribed lackluster routine time and time again.

This environment may be fine for some, but the challenge came when the schedule encountered a change. Tension rose quickly. Unfortunately, without any flexibility from team or doctor, all schedule conflicts became major dilemmas. Many times patients would ask, “How is he to work for? He seems very demanding.” In this practice, systems were in place, but there was no leeway for relaxed communication between patient and provider. One may find retaining long-term employees more difficult in these situations, because the hygienist may continue to search for an opportunity to practice elsewhere in a less stagnant office with less stress.

Hygienists strongly desire to practice in an environment that is considered stable - an environment that allows some flexibility and one in which their skills are not under constant scrutiny from the doctor. This type of environment breeds contentment through balance and reduced daily pressure. After all, it is not easy to practice when the doctor hovers over your shoulder, an evidence of a lack of trust. An uptight arena is mentally difficult to work in long-term. Even if he or she is considered the “work horse” of the practice, we must allow the hygienist time away from the office to encourage growth. I have spoken with hygienists who are so tightly reined that any introduction of new concepts causes them to stay in a stall. These professionals can hardly believe that a hygienist and doctor can communicate effectively, so they scoff at trying new concepts. Encourage your hygienists to escape the doldrums by attending upbeat seminars. Allow them to display awards, association and seminar certificates, and honors they have received. This promotes the hygienist, which in turn reflects highly on the dentist who is fortunate to have such an unbridled hygienist galloping on the team.

Most hygienists enjoy networking with other hygienists. Believe it or not, we do not attend seminars to get together and discuss our salaries, benefits, or our “horrendous working conditions.” We avoid unfavorable conversations regarding our employers. We do, however, discuss new products and the latest and greatest technology. In addition, we explore ways to improve office camaraderie and teambuilding efforts. By and large, hygienists take pride in their practices and can easily tell others what sets their offices apart from others. If you currently do not provide your hygienist with business cards, consider the possibility. Stylish cards packed with office information can be offered with pride and enthusiasm to peers, friends, and potential patients when the hygienist is treated as a dental office liaison. After all, who would prove better to promote your practice than a pleased employee?

Appreciate that each dental practice is unique, as are the individuals who practice dentistry. An environment that works for one employee may not suit another. Encourage forward-thinking ideas, product recommendations, and team-oriented suggestions from the hygienist. Do not put your hygienist out to pasture by stifling his or her growth in the practice. Create an office atmosphere that encourages flexibility and supports continuing education, all in a relaxed, stable environment. Keeping your hygienist dutifully corralled will only cause undue burnout and potential job stress. Allow your hygienist to become unbridled by loosening the reins and developing trust among the team.

Karen Kaiser, RDH

Ms. Kaiser has been in the dental field since 1986. She graduated from St. Louis, Mo., Forest Park hygiene program in 1994 and practices in Illinois at the Center for Contemporary Dentistry. Ms. Kaiser authors articles, presents, and can be reached at At Your Fingertips: [email protected].