Often when engaged in conversation with others the questions “what do you do for a living?” or “where do you work?” are frequently asked. This blog entry is a call to registered dental hygienists to rethink their response and word choices when posed with questions of this nature. I would like to take a moment to reflect upon how we as registered dental hygienists may commonly respond to those types of questions. Most of us will respond with, “I am a hygienist”. The conversation may then proceed to a few comments on the part of the other party on how they simply cannot believe that we clean people’s mouths all day and absolutely cannot understand how we do it. For the most part, that seems to be the direction that the conversation takes, or at least that was the case for me until I made two key changes.
The first change that I made was a conscious effort to stop the oversimplification of dental hygiene and perpetuation of a feminized profession. I did this by saying that “I am a REGISTERED DENTAL hygienist”. What may seem a benign, harmless word- hygienist to describe the profession has some potential ramifications. The word hygienist only speaks to the cleaningor hygienic role of our work. In addition, other professions exist that use the word hygienist in their name such as, occupational hygienist and industrial hygienist; those two professions have very different roles than that of the registered dental hygienist.
Consequences are presented by the word choices that we use. I think that one of the main consequences is a misrepresentation of the advanced educational preparation of a registered dental hygienist. A hygienist or cleaner is an occupation, who solely fulfills one role or job on a daily basis. That type of description is indeed not reflective of my work in any way, and I am certain it is not reflective of yours. I was selling my profession and myself short, and that is a big consequence in itself.
There have been so many milestones achieved in dental hygiene in the last 10 years. One such milestone was the removal of the scaling order in Ontario. Hygienists did not pioneer these milestones, as these individuals were not holding mops and brooms as they lobbied the government and educated the public on the capabilities, depth and breadth of the dental hygiene profession. These individuals were educated professionals with a passion for oral and overall health care. These milestones were initiated, pioneered and achieved by registered dental hygienists.
I am a registered dental hygienist and I choose to identify myself with that same passion for oral and overall health, after all my education prepared me for that role. A registered dental hygienist is a professional who may work independently, collaboratively and utilizes critical thinking and problem solving skills on a daily basis. Furthermore, registered dental hygienists have and continue to advance their education and role in the community.
When someone now asks me “what I do for a living”, I proudly say that “I am a registered dental hygienist”, and when the conversation continues on to the “teeth cleaning” aspect, I respond with “actually, that is one thing that I do”. Some of my new responses include “I perform oral cancer screenings in my practice”, “I raise client awareness of the link between oral and systemic health”, and “I do volunteer work in the community on a regular basis”.
All of the above mentioned responses are a truer reflection of the professional roles of the registered dental hygienist. These roles as described in Dental Hygiene Theory and Practice, by Darby and Walsh include: clinician, educator, administrator or manager, advocate, and researcher.
Take a moment to reflect on how you fulfill these roles everyday. You may not think that you are, but upon careful analysis you will find that when you are using the VELscope to identify and carefully document a lesion in a client’s oral cavity, you are advocating for their health. When you are accessing the College of Dental Hygienists of Ontario website Knowledge Network to look up a medical condition that you may not be familiar with, you are acting as a researcher. You are acting as an administrator when you plan and schedule a maintenance interval for a periodontally involved client. These are just a few examples of the wide range of skills that the registered dental hygienist possesses.
Many of us do not realize the full potential of roles that our education prepares us for. By tapping into our full range of competencies, not only may we find more professional satisfaction, but we also create an excellent opportunity to educate the public on the importance of dental hygienists. Ultimately, someone who may be in need of oral health care who “didn’t know that we did all that”, will be able to access a golden resource in the health care community that they never knew existed; that resource is you.
Adams, Tracey L. Professionalization, Gender and Female-dominated Professions: Dental Hygiene in Ontario. Canadian Review of Sociology. 2003;40.3:267-289.
Darby, ML, Walsh MM. Dental Hygiene Theory and Practice. Third Edition. St. Louis, MO: Saunders Elsevier, 2010.