Are Dental Hygienists Undervalued?
If you think back to your previous dental visits, can you remember the professional who interacted with you the most? There’s a good chance it was your dental hygienist. After all, hygienists do a lot of the heavy lifting during dental exams and cleanings. They perform fluoride treatments, place sealants, screen for oral cancer, help with fillings, check for decay, update medical history, and so on.
Despite their training and important role of helping you maintain your oral health, hygienists can often be overlooked. In fact, hygienist Candice Feagle wrote an opinion piece in October that outlines this common issue:
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.”
Yes, I am just a hygienist:.
- 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 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 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!
It is rather surprising that Ms. Feagle would have to justify her value. Then again, so many jobs in the medical field can have thankless moments and difficult situations to navigate despite job security. For instance, according to Salary.com, nurses have exhaustingly long hours and less-than fun duties, like changing bedpans. Yet nurses are very much underpaid for all that they do.
Even medical professionals in the upper echelons of the pay scale have their struggles. For instance in Dr. Maggie Kozel’s book The Color of the Atmosphere: One Doctor’s Journey in and out of Medicine, she explores that delicate balance of trying to help patients while being stressed by insurance regulations and liability.
Despite Ms. Feagle’s experiences with others, hygienists truly are vital to patients’ health. For instance, one New England hygienist says that she and her fellow hygienists are often the first people that sees signs of oral trauma and disease. She also says that the job is fast-paced and you have to be ready to assist many other co-workers on the fly:
Thankfully, the Dental Tribune says that because of their education and skills, hygienists should be allowed to contribute more to the field as oral health care becomes more accessible:
“Through dental hygiene diagnoses, dental hygienists educate patients on behaviors that minimize risks of oral infections, help detect risk factors for infectious diseases and cancers of the head and neck,” said ADHA president Betty Kabel, RDH, BS. “This elevates the role of the dental hygienist within the overall health care system, as we seek to expand the access to oral care. It’s important to utilize the dental hygiene diagnoses regularly and consistently to ensure optimal care for our patients.”
While dental hygienists’ rigorous education prepares them to provide preventive and therapeutic oral health services, the profession’s scope of practice varies from state to state. ADHA emphasizes that it is important for dental hygienists to fully utilize their education to provide oral health care services that fall within their scope . . .
You can read more about the changing roles of hygienists at the American Dental Hygienists’ Association (ADHA) website. The association is concerned with this profession’s value, since “confusion still exists on how to implement it into daily practice.”