What is a dental hygienist?
Patients ask me these three questions with persistence: “Are you my dentist?”, “Are you going to do my cleaning?”, “What is a dental hygienist?”
I rehearse my responses each day in hopes of promoting accurate, concise information about myself, my capabilities and the profession.
My sermon includes varying degrees of these statements: “I am Monica Carmine and I will be your dental hygienist today. Hygienists are preventative mid level practitioners comparable to a nurse. We focus on preventative hygiene and periodontal procedures. I will be assessing the health of your mouth to determine if you need a prophylaxis also known as a cleaning or something more such as this periodontal treatment.”
I know deep down that many patients are still confused after my sermon, but the work that I do will speak for itself. After today’s treatment they will learn a new home care technique and will be reminded of how a clean mouth feels or introduced to that sentiment for the first time.
In regards to my sermon, it includes a very bad word. In hygiene school, the word “cleaning” was about as taboo as wearing a fur coat as a PETA rally. We probably could curse at a faculty member but saying that “c” word belittled the whole profession to something that a monkey could do. A faculty member literally said that once, “A monkey can be trained to clean teeth you are a professional your skills are more than that of a “cleaner”.” Each time the word is said in my practice a part of me still cringes. I can see my former periodontics instructor Ms. Schneiderman shaking her head with disappointment.
Ms. Schneiderman or “Schneidy” as we affectionately call her, is a dental rock star. In fact, all of my former instructors at University of Maryland School of Dentistry are rock stars. They are published in dental journals, active in the state and local government and the American Dental Hygiene Association and some even invented instruments. They are in this dental hygiene profession so deep that sometimes I wonder if they know how the world perceives dental hygienists or if they were just preparing us by giving us the skills to rise above all the foolishness.
I believe my instructors wanted to pump us up so that we would be able to eloquently answer the many questions posed for hygienists. Our education for example, is something that’s always in question.
I graduated from a dental hygiene program in the worlds first dental school, University of Maryland School of Dentistry. We were infused with confidence at every turn in terms of our abilities and how we should perceive our profession.
It was much to my surprise that upon graduation people did not know that we were licensed and board certified health care providers.
A dental hygienist endures about two years worth of science based prerequisites. These classes are the same classes all future health providers typically take before entering their professional program. Upon completion hopefuls can apply with crossed fingers to a dental hygiene program. After acceptance you are granted access to the wonderful world of teeth also known as death by PowerPoint or hygiene hell.
You complete another two years of clinical training and a battery of anxiety causing exams to become eligible for your clinical board exam, national written exam and the local board and legal exam.
Speaking of anxiety, there is nothing like holding a sharp instrument over an unsuspecting patient while having an instructor judge your posture, technique and tiny finger movements. The majority of my classmates had anxiety so severe they were either medicated or found uncontrollably pooping before clinic each morning. We did all this hoping to not shed poop pounds but to be recognized as a professional.
So a few pounds lighter, dental hygienists are the compassionate practitioners in the dental office. We hold immense clinical knowledge and are often the patient’s confidante due to the 6 month frequency of preventative appointments. Even though you rarely see our profession on TV or learn about it in the paper we do exist and must continue to try to gain exposure as clinical providers.