Celebrating the red, white and blues of dental hygiene

July 12, 2019

Learn how to overcome three common challenges dental hygienists face.

With the Fourth of July just behind us, I hope we all enjoyed a much-deserved mid-week day off to enjoy some barbeque by the pool. For me, July 4th is a sunscreen-soaked day filled with relaxation followed by holding my shivering dogs as my neighborhood launches its fireworks display.

In addition, the Fourth of July is a day for us to reflect on the value of our freedom and the incredible sacrifice so many service men and women as well as forward-thinking leaders have made in the name of our freedom. The road to signing the Declaration of Independence was littered with sacrifice, challenge and hardship. Centuries later, however, we express gratitude and celebrate the journey that brought our country to the freedoms we now have. So, we must remember how precious this freedom is for us.

As dental hygienists, we find professional responsibility in a different way, and that’s through empathetic health and educational service to our community. Just like our Founding Fathers, however, we are often met with challenges along the way. While we know the importance of our work, it’s also important that we understand how to overcome these challenges with a sliver of grit, poise and grace.

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This article unpacks three common challenges of the dental hygienist-the red, white and blue, if you will, of dental hygiene-as well as offers suggestions on how to overcome these obstacles to ensure a smoother workday.

Red

“My gums only bleed when you poke me” and other variations of blaming our periodontal probe for eliciting a diseased response are all-too-common responses for the dental hygienist. To be fair, the patient is partially correct. The reason why we’re able to identify bleeding is because his or her sulcular epithelium is stimulated by our probe. However, as we all learned in dental hygiene school, healthy gingiva simply shouldn’t bleed upon GENTLE stimulation.

In most cases, bleeding is due to the ulceration of the sulcular epithelium, meaning localized inflammation that’s site-specific. However, we’re also beginning to understand that bleeding indicates an open portal to localized blood vessels, permitting the entrance of potentially pathogenic microorganisms into the circulatory system. We understand this in the cases that require oral premedication, but I also believe this may provide an opportunity to shift our patients’ understanding of their oral disease by helping them to understand the ramifications of this bacteremia. Systemic acquisition of this bacteria has been linked to various acute and chronic diseases ranging from upper respiratory tract infections to certain types of cancers to heart diseases to pregnancy complications and reproductive challenges, just to name a few.

While we all understand the importance of patient education, we also recognize that many patients simply shut down while we’re educating them. Despite this, companies like CURAPROX have developed educational tools that help to elevate the conversation with our patients. With their “bleeding on brushing” application, dental professionals utilize gentle stimulation with a branded interproximal brush and gather assessments that remove the “poking and prodding” of a periodontal probe in gathering and identifying bleeding and infection points.

I encourage dental professionals to consider utilizing their unique platform to aide in more comprehensive and supportive conversation with patients.

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White

We see them all day long: the patients who present with rampant caries, advanced periodontal disease and countless risk factors to oral disease. We spend a large portion of our patient contact time gathering assessments and delivering a carefully worded treatment plan inclusive of the importance of managing this disease while preventing the exacerbation of further disease only to be asked, “What type of whitening do you offer?"

In today’s society of highly esthetic smiles, it seems only natural that most of our patients would be drawn to the dental office to seek out quick and effective approaches to improving the overall appearance of their smile.

While the dental professional may see this as a departure from his or her objective of preventing, managing or controlling disease, I encourage you to consider that this conversation provides opportunity. Of note: dental whitening and other cosmetic procedures have provided a highly sought-after service that bring patients into the dental office. In addition, the cosmetically-driven patient, while seemingly unmotivated to move forward with necessary dental treatment, has provided you with his or her clear and concise motivator-esthetics.

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As highly trained dental professionals, we not only understand the risks associated with uncontrolled disease but also the ways in which these uncontrolled diseases affect the form, function and appearance of the oral cavity.

As such, this provides the dental professional with an opportunity to direct his or her patient-centered education toward the patient’s true motivator. I find that cosmetically-driven patients who understand the esthetic repercussions of oral disease are far more motivated to manage disease than those whose eyeballs are exhausted from rolling while hearing another “oral-systemic link” talk from their hygienist.

Blue

Are you experiencing the dental hygiene blues? You know what I mean: the type of burnout that’s a combination of a week of difficult patients plus the desperate need for a vacation often tied up in a bow called “the air conditioning is out at the office” or your favorite co-worker took off for the week.

It’s the kind of blues that truly weighs on you because it can easily desensitize your empathy and drain you from the core. I believe it’s important for the dental community to identify and execute tangible steps in ensuring we’re actively addressing the signs and symptoms of the dental hygiene blues. Here are five actionable steps to consider if you, too, feel the stress and strain of the dental hygiene blues, as featured in my previous article on compassion fatigue:

1. Take a course: Nothing fills my heart more than having my course participants tell me they simply can’t wait to step back into the operatory on Monday morning and see patients. There’s something so incredibly thrilling about acquiring fresh knowledge and being able to integrate that knowledge in an eloquent way during patient care. I implore you to take a course that challenges you, inspires you to think outside the box, or simply encourages you to seek personal development. Remember that personal development is professional development.

2. Prepare your day: Make sure you show up. And by show up, I mean be present. Wake up early, enjoy a cup of coffee with the sunrise, listen to your favorite song in the shower, dab on your favorite perfume (or cologne, cheers to my guygenists!), listen to a great podcast on the way to work, prep your operatory for the day, turn on a great Pandora station, pay a compliment to your hard-working office manager, stay positive, and rock your day! It’s far easier to pour wine from a full bottle rather than an empty one-Maslow taught us that.

Related reading: Are you suffering from burnout?

3. Talk to your patient: Take off your mask and loupes, deglove and sit down at eye level with your patient. Look him or her in the eye and speak to him or her with honesty and clarity. Share your wealth of knowledge, enlighten the patient, empower him or her and remind him or her why he or she entrusted his or her care to you.

4. Remember your practice philosophy: Back in my dental hygiene faculty days, I encouraged my students to adapt a philosophy of practice, an anthem or motto that they could integrate into every aspect of their patient care.  Mine is: “I treat every patient as if they are a member of my family…that I like.” On an hourly basis, I gently place my hand on my patients’ shoulder and advise them, “If you were my sister or my best friend, I would tell you…”  My patients trust me because they know I speak with honesty and integrity.

5. Reframe your mind: We all spend too much time arguing with the voice in our head that tells us, “He will only do what his insurance says” or worse, the terrible ways in which we question our own professional judgement. Here’s the reality: we’re in the business of serving people and their needs while bettering their quality of life. Remind yourself of all the ways your talents and skills can serve those unique needs for your patients, believe in them and speak honestly to your patients about them.

Conclusion

I encourage you to consider how you can follow in the footsteps of our Founding Fathers by creating a universe in which you can thrive.

For John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, it meant advocacy. For Benjamin Franklin, it meant leadership and mentorship, and for John Hancock, well, it meant simply living large and leaving your mark in a BIG and memorable way.

I hope you all enjoyed a safe and relaxing holiday. Let freedom ring!