US News and Report recently ranked dental hygiene seventeenth on its 2018 list of the 100 Best Jobs. It achieved an overall score of 7.4/10 and the prestigious ranking of first on the Best Health Care Support Jobs of 2018. Salary, low stress, and work-life balance are a few of the categories that scored well for the profession.
But is dental hygiene really what it is cracked up to be? Having been in this profession for 10 years, I have had my share of ups and downs. And facing the cold truth, many have been downs.
A young, spirited woman graduates from a university with a profitless degree in the humanities but cannot seem to qualm the overwhelming urge to pursue a career in healthcare. Endless research and reading reports about the top professions convinces this woman to delve into a lucrative career as a dental hygienist.
There must be a deep-seeded passion (and perhaps a sprinkling of subconscious self-destruction) to become a successful dental hygienist. I had both. On top of that, the world was throwing jobs at me as if I was training in a batting cage for the World Series.
I (seemingly) made the right career move, and I could not be more pleased. I cared deeply, empathetically, and genuinely about my clients. (I still do!) Strangers I hadn’t met before were trusting me to lead them on a path of oral and overall health. I felt like a dental hero, with a bib as my cape and my scaler as my weapon of choice.
Fast forward through 10 years of dental hygiene. My cape is shredded and smeared with prophy paste, I can’t find the daisy chain by which it was once supported, and my scaler is as blunt as a bat. So what happened? How did such a wonderful profession become so trying?
Employer/Employee Communication Disconnect
Employers can be rough—about as rough as a 9-mm pocket that hasn’t seen a hygienist in 20 years. Though nowadays hygienists have the freedom to practice solo (thank you “self-initiation”!), for the most part we still practice as an employee for a dentist.
Many dental practices are owned by the dentist, which forces dentists to wear many hats—much like us Canadians in the winter. A dentist is not simply a healthcare practitioner, but also a business owner. Dentists desire to grow and maintain a successful dental practice in a reputable regard.
Finding the balance between being a human being, a doctor, and a business owner can become taxing and stressful. In many cases, this stress can lead to poor and detrimental communication toward employees.
Throughout my career, I have been at the receiving end of scrutiny (in front of patients); had unachievable high demand to be perfect in every way (and do it in 45 minutes or less); pressure to bill more (in less time); and unreasonable expectations for continued sacrifice to personal/familial life (no, you don’t need to socialize or be there for your family, and yes, you do need to work evenings and weekends for the rest of your life).
As this person is your boss and governs your income, you may find yourself unable to defend yourself. This makes for a tense working environment, mental and emotional exhaustion, and lack of motivation to go to work altogether, like forgetting your helmet and getting hit in the head with a baseball every morning, then being expected to hit a home run.
“It’s just a cleaning, right?”
There are many, many visitors to the dental hygienist who wholeheartedly appreciate the ways in which we contribute to their lives, from debriding calculus to being an empathetic listener and protecting against bacterial endocarditis (and awkward elevator conversations with close-talkers).
But let’s face it. “It’s just a cleaning” is, in general, reflective of the value that is placed on our profession. This can be very draining on a dental hygiene superhero. It shreds us down like floss on an overhanging restoration. We want to be more! But often, we are highly underappreciated. We aren’t selling hotdogs at the baseball game. We’re “inflicting pain” and then demanding to be paid for doing it. There’s that pesky self-destruction thing.
Occupational Health Hazards
As dental hygienists, we are the stars of Dental Cirque du Soleil. We contort our bodies into unfathomable positions, hoping to eliminate that vexing chunk of tartar or that tenacious speck of stain. Being a hygienist hurts! Head, shoulders, knees, and toes—and neck, and wrists, and fingers, and back.
It is physically demanding in a manner that I certainly never considered prior to undertaking a professional career in dentistry. On top of that, we are exposed to plaque, blood, microbial aerosols, and chemicals used to disinfect our operatories and sterilize instruments. Dental hygienists’ bodies are wrought with aches and occupational hazard exposure that puts us at risk for various physical ailments and diseases.
How Do We Make It Better?
So what are the solutions for making this profession, in fact, a top-rated vocation? There are several. Be fully educated and aware that dental hygiene is not always glamorous and revered like we see on many television shows (just kidding). The truth is, it is a tough job that at times can drain the spirit and the body.
A successful and happy dental hygienist has self-respect and honest communication. We have to hold ourselves in a higher regard if we are to be treated as the professionals that we are. We have to have clear, honest discourse with our employers about respect and trust. We are here as support to our colleagues, our clients, and our employers.
The best way to achieve these things is to have a strong connection with the dentist. Set the same goals. Compromise. Listen. When we have the right connection with the right dentist, clients too will view us as being more than just tooth-scrapers. Educating our clientele on an ongoing (and persistent) basis about the oral-systemic connection will help them identify us as healthcare practitioners. Love what you do. Never settle for anything else. (Thank you to the exceptional employers over the past few years who have taught me these lessons.)
And stretch. Stretch every moment that your workday offers you. Stretch at home. Get a massage or an adjustment. (Bless the registered massage therapists, chiropractors, and osteopaths who bring us relief!) Wear your personal protection equipment vigilantly, and follow standard precautions to protect yourself from occupational hazards. And, never cut corners, because how are you going to hit it out of the park if your rotator cuff won’t allow you to swing the bat?
Ms. Groza studied dental hygiene at Algonquin College and has been working as a registered dental hygienist since 2008. She holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts from McMaster University and is currently procuring an additional degree in business administration. Magdalena resides in Mount Hope, Ontario, but was born in Poland and immigrated to Canada in 1986. She and her husband are kept busy with their 3-year-old daughter and one-year-old son. She can be reached at email@example.com.