Six Tips for Left-Handed Dental Hygienists in a Right-Handed Operatory

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Left-handed dental hygienists have an added struggle to an already demanding career because many operatories have inadequate space on the left-hand side of the patient chair. Beyond inadequate space, I have seen a job posting stating a preference for right-handed hygienists, and early in my career, an interview ended abruptly when I mentioned being left-handed.

This led me to wonder if dental offices might not want the hassle of adapting to a left-handed setup. I have tried to keep the operatory in “default mode” as much as possible. However, I was twisting a lot to reach the right side. This, unsurprisingly, led to poor ergonomics and body pain.

We can’t do this to ourselves. The dental hygiene profession already takes such a toll on our musculoskeletal systems. We must advocate for our health and ensure career longevity with proper positioning.

Below are six tips to make left-handed dentistry easier for hygienists.

1) Cut down on cords

It can be difficult to get cords to reach over to the patient’s left side. Sometimes, the cords are lying on the ground on the left side and can easily get tangled with the wheels of the operator chair. Some cords, such as suction and air/water, can’t be avoided.

But we can use a battery to avoid a corded ultrasonic scaler pedal. A cordless polisher is more adaptable, and some have a pressure sensor, so a pedal isn’t even necessary. A battery-operated keyboard and mouse allow for an easy switch to a left-handed setup. Having the computer monitor on an adjustable arm with a swivel also helps with this switch.

2) Stand up

Stand up because it creates variety in our monotonous movements and positioning. For lefties, it’s a little easier to squeeze into a small space if you practice while standing. There’s also no running over cords with your chair.

3) Streamline exams

I am lucky my dentist is fine doing his exams from my side of the chair because it keeps me from switching the room setup back and forth every hour. If this isn’t possible, try keeping the swivel lever on the patient chair unlocked so the chair can easily pivot to a right-handed setup. A second operator chair placed on the patient’s right side avoids the need to slide an operator chair back and forth, potentially getting tangled in cords. Sometimes, dentists decide to stand on the right side during exams instead of sitting, eliminating the operator chair’s crossover.

4) Customize Your operatory

Is there anything changeable in the operatory that would make it more comfortable? Talk to your boss about solutions. Is there another operatory in the office with more space on the left side? Can tubing be extended so that cords reach the left side? Maybe a cupboard or shelf can be taken out. A boss that values you will want to invest in their employee’s well-being and retention of team members.

My boss was able to move my patient chair a few inches. It turned out the patient chair wasn’t bolted to the floor – it was just really heavy. All it took was two people to give it a good push. Since there are cords involved, it wouldn’t move drastically, but a few inches was a game changer for me. I didn’t even realize that was possible.

5) Double up on self-care

We all know that being a dental hygienist is hard on our bodies. To minimize musculoskeletal damage, I recommend massage therapy, physical therapy, yoga, acupuncture, or anything that will keep your body healthy. I would argue that left-handed hygienists need extra self-care because we often have added strain from working in operatories designed for right-handed practitioners.

6) Don’t waste your time on bad operatories

Not all operatories are going to be able to accommodate left-handed practitioners. I have done a lot of temp work and can manage most rooms. But sometimes, I simply can’t fit on the left side.

In my experience, newer offices tend to be more ambidextrous. I’m hoping that, in time, every office will be fully functional from either side. But as of now, let go of the offices that can’t accommodate you. Tour the office or at least ask to see a picture of the rooms when you interview for a new position.

I told my temp agency that I was a lefty, and they would confirm with my temp placements that the operatory was functional from both sides. A couple of times, the operatory had been switched over for me before I even got there – the dental unit was switched to the left side, and the patient chair was swiveled to the left – what a treat!

Yes, it’s frustrating to potentially lose job opportunities because of being left-handed. But there are plenty of jobs out there, and we can afford to let go of the few that don’t fit us. Jobs come and go, but we must make our careers and bodies last. Don’t let the fear of missing out make you compromise proper ergonomics.

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