Can a Dental Hygienist’s Career Goals be Ambitious Too?

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A dental hygienist could pinpoint five or six zip codes for his or her career goals.

I live in the 74135 zip code. So I want all dental disease eradicated through preventive efforts in that zip code. My doctor’s office is in 74137 zip code. He has some patients living there, of course, but I want that entire zip code to be disease-free. My kids will go to school in the 74133 zip code. So, no traces of dental disease anywhere near those school buildings. My parents will live in the 74105 zip code when it’s time for them to live in assisted living facilities. I don’t think the eradication of dental disease is going to be high on the list of priorities of personnel there. So I need to venture over there soon and launch some solid oral health campaigns in 74105 too.

Woe be to the person who thinks a dental hygienist couldn’t complete those career goals. No one is better trained or more ambitious about oral health prevention than the dental hygienist.

And, he or she would feel good about accomplishing those goals too. However, the main beneficiaries of those career goals are related more to the mission of dental hygiene rather than the profession’s ambition. Residents in every zip code are very lucky to have dental hygienists laboring on their behalf.

“What’s in it for me?” is the question everyone else has about career goals. In most cases, workers are plunked down into the trenches, building up a portfolio of accomplishments that will launch them into management. On the personal side, the accrue a level of wealth associated with the career, resulting in purchases such as a home, cars, season tickets to the symphony, etc. Even though there is more autonomy now for dental hygiene, hygienists basically have to change the career in which they were trained in order to advance as a worker or as a consumer.

Dental hygienists exit their education with excellent tools for increasing awareness about oral health in their communities. If anyone would just ask, they can bring notebooks upon notebooks to the dental office’s next staff meeting, explaining how a periodontal screening program would improve the health of all patients. (No one really asks, though, because offices just like to “watch” disease, right?) There is a ceiling in the dental office setting, prompting numerous social media programs about how to get the hell out of the thing you’re so good at; and, yes, if you graduated from an accredited dental hygiene program, you can be very good at what you’re trained to do.

Why is ambition such a dirty word in dental hygiene?

About a year ago, a study observed how nurses are enrolling for advanced education in order to pursue a greater leadership role in health care. Dental hygienists also are eager to enroll in graduate programs if the benefits are clear. But I don’t think many hygienists feel the master’s degree advances their career goals that much unless they wish to become an educator in a dental hygiene program.

Of course, many leaders in dental hygiene believe very strongly that every dental hygienist should have a bachelor’s degree, at the very least. They put forth many convincing arguments that a bachelor’s, master’s or a doctorate degree helps raise the credibility of the profession in the eyes of consumers and employers.

However, we’ve already acknowledged that dental hygiene schools are a tough place to learn. Students have to be very ambitious to even be there. Why must a dental hygienist restrict her ambition after school to merely developing a largely unenforced prevention program in a dental office?

Today’s RDH would like to hear more from you about how you feel the profession allows you to be ambitious, or perhaps not. Please consider answering these questions about how you define ambition as a dental hygienist.