Practicing as a dental hygienist demands physical stamina and we know that regularly stretching our muscles can help avoid the physiological aches and pains that come with the job. We as dental hygienists must also have the ability to regularly stretch our comfort zones.
That’s the kind of stretching that will eventually help to alleviate the psychological strains we inevitably encounter in our careers. Moving beyond our comfort zones enables us to see what our capabilities are, to better establish successful partnerships with doctors, propel the future of dental hygiene forward while securing our own place within the field, and ultimately makes us better at what we do.
Like most hygienists I am concerned about job market saturation. I would find myself feeling twinges of resentment when I heard candidates planning to attend hygiene school or just entering the market. They were excited about their goals and reaching graduation – maybe I was a little jealous of the years and new opportunities available to them.
Then I realized my years of experience may have something to offer these newer hygienists that could help them to create more fulfilling and prosperous careers. Adapting outside the limiting parameters of my own comfort zone gave me a new perspective on my past, present, and future role in dental hygiene and helped to renew my sense of purpose in the profession I have loved.
What a privilege it was, then, to be invited to contribute a blog for Cambridge Dental Consultants. It presented a new challenge and opportunity to share some of what my 18 years’ experience has taught me. The thing is, I have never written a blog in my life, and I agonized for weeks over what to write about and what to say. Anything hygiene related? Hmmm, that narrows it some! Therefore, I am using the experience of my own uncertainty and discomfort to talk about how stepping outside the familiar is not only helpful but necessary to grow our careers and ourselves, both professionally and personally. Sometimes there is no better push than the Nike slogan, “Just Do It”; so here goes.
I hear all the time through dental hygiene networking that more than anything we want to be valued by dentists as professionals. There is the constant lament that the hygiene profession is losing its credibility and value with the doctors who employ us. I believe that unless we have the ability to grow beyond our clinical education, we will likely not enjoy the fruits of becoming the valued professionals we want to be. Our growth requires feeling awkward and uncomfortable when trying something new, whether it is a new technique, technology, or way of thinking.
When the critical role hygienists can play in dental business success is discussed, I am at the same time amused and bemused by some of the responses within the hygiene community. You would think we are being asked to sell our soul to “numbers” and become “one of them.” Yet how can we even hope to have a mutually respectful relationship with our doctors if we are uncomfortable with the realities of small business ownership? Do we really expect our doctors to not profit from services we render, or are we uncomfortable with new paradigms, procedures, responsibilities, and tasks that lead to increased profitability? I think for some, our comfort zones are merely being challenged and we need to stretch beyond our limiting beliefs about what our hygiene practice numbers really mean and embrace a balanced view of our ability to contribute to practice profitability. Quality and ethical patient care is not inherently undermined by a solid understanding of basic business principles. Yet if we wish to remain in this old comfort zone, even with good intentions, we are in reality not only hurting ourselves but possibly the entire profession as well.
As more and more external forces are pressuring our doctors’ ability to sustain successful dental practices, they not only need but essentially require a hygienist partner who can contribute toward the practice’s financial growth and longevity as well as delivery of excellent patient care. If you don’t challenge yourself to move beyond what you already know, and grow your own value, you will be left on the shore waiting for your boat to come in.
Certainly there are countless ways that we as professionals can grow and meet the demands of a dynamic profession like dental hygiene and the many varied needs of our patients. Once we let go of our need for the safety that comes with doing only what we know, and embrace getting our feet wet with a new direction, we will come to a place that gives us renewed confidence and enthusiasm for our abilities as a dental hygienist. It can also provide the security and respect we seek in an increasingly competitive job market.
After eighteen years, I am still learning and incorporating new skills and techniques; integrating Caries Management by Risk Assessment (CAMBRA) and more thoroughly discussing the science we know about recognizing risk factors and averting dental caries altogether, sub-gingival air polishing, and learning to use a dental microscope to educate patients on their oral health status and treatment needs. If you think there is a learning curve to using 2.5x magnification personal loupes, imagine working with an 8x magnification dental microscope! It is still awkward to me, but I love the challenge and am redefining my “normal” by being willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable acquiring new skills.
I easily recall how unnatural it was at first to work with new verbal scripts and communication styles to teach patients on a disease process and the recommended treatment, to convey value for their prescheduled appointment times and minimize cancellations, and to comprehensively manage a positive perception of their dental visit. But I assure you that repetition and practice will replace the unfamiliar with a new confidence and natural ease. The greatest beauty of stretching beyond our comfort zones is that once we break through old boundaries they will never return to their original position. We will then be in an advantaged position to reach even higher.
I encourage you to embrace those times when you are presented with something new; whether it is learning new patient communication skills, adapting to a new assisted hygiene schedule, getting certified for local anesthesia (and becoming proficient with it,) learning to incorporate the use of lasers in treating periodontal disease, growing hygiene profitability, or writing a blog... the new experience and confidence you acquire will far outweigh the comfort of staying on a familiar shore. Stretching our comfort zones allow us to reach new destinations and rewards us both professionally and personally. So I ask you again: are you stretching? It is just as important for our careers as it is for our bodies!