8 Reasons to Stop Being a Clinical Dental Hygienist

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You mean some people become hygienists, and they don’t like it?

There. I said it. Because no one seems to want to talk about it.

Sometimes we just need some time away from the polish, scale, floss, educate, schedule, wipe, repeat. A break. A vacation.

And, sometimes it’s something more. And, that’s scary!

Believe it or not, some people go to school to be hygienists, and it’s not all they dreamed it would be. They need something more than they aren’t getting from being a private practice hygienist.

So, how do you know if you just need some time off or if you need to get out?

1) You Hope That Every Patient is a No-Show

OK, we have all been there. Today has just been crazy. It’s four o’clock. You have been 10 minutes behind with every patient. The doctor needs to do a quick filling adjustment. You have to remove some cement off a recently placed crown, and he just asked for another bitewing and a CBCT.

“If my next patient didn’t show up, I could clean without running around the operatory. I could finish a couple of notes. I could sharpen the spoons I’m scaling with. I could do all the things that I never have time for.”

It’s normal to need some more time for a job that we never have enough time to do.

But the problem begins when you start hoping every patient is a no-show. When you would rather do anything else in the office − sterilization, insurance verification, reorganizing − than see another patient.

Because you don’t want to be there, you are not giving your patients the best service you can.

If you are consistently hoping that you have fewer and fewer patients throughout the day, it might be time to consider other options in dentistry or outside of it.

2) You Hate Routine

I once had an instructor in hygiene school say, “If you are personalizing your treatment, education, and timing for each patient, you will never be doing the same thing over and over again.”

To a certain extent, I don’t disagree.

Each new mouth presents something new to look at. A different set of genes and systemic factors. New data that needs to be gathered and organized in order to create a complete picture that gives us the answers we need.

With the right dentist, office, team, information, and time, hygienists have the ability to literally change lives.

But at the end of the day, a prophy appointment looks pretty similar at 9 o’clock as it does at 4 o’clock. The same procedures must be done.

Many patients just need to have the correct home care technique and consistent dedication to brushing and interproximal cleaning, and most disease processes will be addressed.

That’s why I appreciated my instructor saying that. But I would also add: Being a hygienist can become monotonous and repetitive.

And, when it does, and you’re hoping for a late-cancel because you might scream if you have to scale moderate supra off the linguals of 22-27 one more time, it may be time to look elsewhere for your 9-5 (Or, should I say 7-6?).

3) You Lose Interest in Connecting With Your Patients

Healthcare providers have a strict and compassionate devotion to our patients. Why else are we dealing with the blood, the mucus, insurance, and the drama-queen team members?

It’s because we have the skills and knowledge to help the people who need it. Hygienists have oral and overall health knowledge that many providers do not − not nurses, not dental assistants, not even doctors − and we have an obligation to share it with everyone we interact with, but especially our patients.

The reason we take that responsibility so seriously is because our patients are everything to us.

We have seen them when they were doing really well with interdental cleaning, omitting soda from their diet, and we’ve seen them when they didn’t have the mental capacity to care about brushing twice a day.

And it’s that type of connection that makes you and me great dental providers. Once that is no longer a priority, we have missed the point.

If you have stopped asking questions, writing personal details down, prioritizing OHI, and acting interested in your patients, let someone else come in and get that information.

You are ready to go on to something different.

4) You Think of Anything Else You Could Be Doing

Hygienists typically have a lot of silence on our hands throughout an appointment. We can only talk so much during that hour, and some patients prefer the silence. You think about a desk job as you are scaling the distal of 18, and their tongue is pushing your instrument out of the way, or they are clouding up your mirror, and you can’t see a single thing.

Or research.

Or being able to wear your hair down.

Or dressing up for work.

Or staying home with your kids.

Or literally anything else that sounds better than what you are doing at that moment.

If doing your job day in and day out (something that you used to love) now makes you want to cry, it’s time to get out! Do something else. You’re doing yourself and everyone around you a disservice if you don’t want to do hygiene. Plenty of hygienists out there are dying to have your position and take care of your patients.

5) You Count Down the Patients, Hours, Days Until the Weekend

Going to your career that you have spent at least four years trying to attain and countless hours learning, studying, and memorizing should be fulfilling. You should be satisfied and, dare I say, enjoy going to work most of the time (we all have our days).

If you spend your life first hoping that your patients aren’t going to show up, and then you think, “Four more, three more, two more, one more until I get to go home,” and then you go home and think, “three more days until the weekend,” and then think “seven more weeks until vacation,” it doesn’t sound like you like your job or your life.

If you are continuously waiting for the hour, day, week to be over, your entire life is going to pass you by with you waiting for all the time that you’re not spending at work. Hygienists are smart, motivated, dedicated, caring, and go-getters. You can find something that you enjoy doing every day instead of waiting for your life to be over.

6) Feeling Exhausted After Work

As I live longer, I learn more about myself and my job. Sometimes it takes knowing yourself to know exactly what you want or how you respond to routine, surprises, change, and trauma. The most important thing I’ve learned is that if you are doing something that you don’t love, it will exhaust you.

If your job is constantly exhausting you and you cannot restore enough energy to do it every day (with a good attitude), you will always be unhappy, tired, cranky, and sad.

There’s an exhaustion born out of fulfillment, satisfaction, joy, and passion. The kind of exhaustion that knocks you out every night but gives you the energy to go to work the next day and the day after.

And then there’s the kind of exhaustion that puts you in your bed at 5:30 when you get home, and you stay there until 11:30 when you finally try to fall asleep, knowing that the next moment of consciousness will be spent getting ready to go back to the place that steals all your energy.

It’s not worth constantly being exhausted if your exhaustion is a result of something you’re not passionate about.

7) It’s Not Worth the Chronic Neck/Back Pain

There are many sacrifices a dental hygienist makes in his/her pursuit of being an excellent clinician. Sometimes it’s ergonomics.

But even with good ergonomics, you still have that one tooth that you really can’t see. The patient who can’t lean back all the way (“Do you sleep sitting up?” “Oh, no, I sleep flat”). The face shield hanging off your incorrectly angled loupes − the awkward position gives you the direct vision that allows you to angulate that instrument just perfectly.

Back and neck pain becomes your new normal. You forget what a day without it really feels like. Most hygienists find a way to cope with it − to do our stretches, get massages, adjustments, and stay active to prolong our careers.

Pain can be a factor that becomes more and more important as you slowly see a decrease in desire to do the thing that’s giving you the backache.

You have to decide if the toll that hygiene takes on our bodies is worth it for you to continue performing hygiene procedures.

8) You’re Not a Good Team Member

This is probably one of the most important factors to consider: Are you a good team member?

Sometimes, if you’re in a position you’re not loving, you can push past the discomfort or dread. After all, you have a family to provide for. A mortgage to pay.

But your attitude tells everyone what they need to know.

If the thought of going back to doing chairside hygiene puts you in a bad mood (and I’m not talking about the Sunday blues or the Monday dread; I’m talking about not even being able to enjoy the weekend because it will be over before you know it and you’ll be back to work), then you need to do something other than chairside hygiene.

If your team is asking, “Hey, are you okay?” or “You seem like you’ve been kind of off, everything going well?” it may be time to reevaluate how your attitude is impacting the office you’re in and the people you work with.

It’s not fair to you to stay in a position you hate, but it’s also not fair to your team, your coworkers, or your boss.

What Does This Mean?

Excellent question.

What do I do if I have found myself resonating with each of the points listed above?

It’s not the end of the world.

The first thing would be to evaluate if you want to stay in dentistry as a dental hygienist. Once you know the answer to this question, you’ll be able to get on the right path to find a career that’s right for you.

But also, if you’re a hygienist who has felt this, it doesn’t mean you hate hygiene!

Mind blown, right? I just listed eight things that are pretty important reasons for liking hygiene.

It could mean you need more from your profession. There are plenty of avenues to go down if you love dental hygiene, but you hate the monotony of chairside duties.

If you love the scientific learning aspect of hygiene, you could go into research.

If you love academia, you could get your master’s in education and be an instructor.

If you love education, you could work at a hospital discussing overall wellness relating to oral health.

If you love business, you could get a master’s in business or public health and work in administration.

Maybe it wasn’t the wrong degree for you to get; you just didn’t get the exact job that fits your personality, your passion, or your strengths.

So don’t be discouraged, depressed, or down on yourself. You’re not the only one who has shared a passion for dental hygiene, and the operatory wasn’t all you expected it to be.

This is permission to feel all these things and still love dental hygiene. Or to feel all these things and search for another career.

There are always more opportunities within the scope of dentistry and outside of it. If it’s not cleaning someone’s teeth, there are many opportunities out there for you to find your passion. The most important thing is that you are doing what you love!

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Carrie McHill, EPDH
Carrie McHill, EPDH, is a hygienist who lives and works in the beautiful Willamette Valley in Oregon. She graduated from Oregon Tech in 2016 with a Bachelor of Science in dental hygiene, expanded practice, and restorative functions. Her main goal as a hygienist is to promote full-body health by bridging the gap between the dental office and other health professionals, encouraging an overall wellness approach to dental care. Education, research of new and exciting dental avenues, and oral health relating to overall systemic health are huge passions of hers that she strives to share with everyone. When she’s not practicing hygiene, she loves to explore the gorgeous scenery Oregon has to offer, travel around the world, and play music with her husband.