Shaping the Future
The Next Generation of Hygienists Leads the Way
Catherine Paulhamus, MA
"The dental hygiene community has come together in extraordinary ways," states the American Dental Hygienists' Association (ADHA). "Voices raised. Hardships endured. And together, we are emerging stronger than ever as essential health care providers."1 Each October marks the recognition of Dental Hygiene Month in the United States. In 2020, that observance also acknowledged the special circumstances with which hygienists were facing during the first year of the pandemic: an unforeseen detour that forced providers and patients to rethink dental care, preventive health, infection control, and patient education. This year, Dental Hygiene Month occurs in another environment, as practices have reopened, but hygienists continue to explore their options. Analysts have noted a nationwide shift in attitudes toward work, as people from all industries reconsider their careers. As reported in the Washington Post, these events have given people "a heightened understanding that life is short and that now is the time to make the changes they have long dreamed of."2 Understandably, the next generation of dental hygiene leaders is being shaped in large part by these major events that have become a catalyst for new career options.
More Options, More Independence
"The next generation of leaders needs to be passionate, dedicated, motivated—and adventurous," says Ashley Leavitt, RDH. Leavitt, who is working for Georgia Prosthodontics in Atlanta, Georgia, has practiced both full-time and as a temporary in six states, enjoying the freedom to explore different opportunities. She has also participated in dental missions in Haiti. "I'm intrigued by people who constantly move and change and travel. I think that the hygiene field is unique because you are able to find a great job in a good practice anywhere in the nation."
Leavitt believes that the younger hygienists are more inclined to seek out roles that work for them, not just steady employment. "In general, the younger generation, we're a bit more vocal," she says. "If we're not at a place that can provide us opportunities, then we move on. I try to be an outlet for other hygienists and give them my number to reach out, because if you're not happy in your life, you're not going to be happy with your work. And you're not doing your best hygiene."
"The leaders who are coming up behind us will be people who not only really care about dental hygiene, but who also care about public health and public service," says Lory Laughter, RDH, MS, Dental Hygiene Program Director/Assistant Professor at the University of the Pacific. "Our responsibilities are going to move away from simply protecting dental hygiene, to actively promoting dental hygiene to the people we serve."
The next generation of leaders will push for more independence, Laughter adds. "They're going to be people who look beyond their practice and see where the need is in the world."
With increasing recognition of oral-systemic health and lack of access to care, oral healthcare is taking on new importance and moving beyond clinical practice. Depending on state licensing considerations, hygienists are filling needs as essential workers in the community: schools, mobile units, assisted living facilities, and other public health venues. Even the idea of community is expanding to other areas through dental missions. Within the practice, the scope of oral healthcare itself is changing to include issues such as sleep solutions, nutrition, and salivary diagnostics. Advances in technology have created more effective treatment through imaging, lasers, artificial intelligence, and caries and oral cancer detection.
Hygiene leaders can also serve their patients by helping their peers improve their practice. They become involved with improving products, testing and rating them, and presenting them to other professionals. Sharing expertise is easier now through blogs, podcasts, and social media. Alternatively, hygienists can produce articles for the wide range of oral health publications, from peer-reviewed to informal perspectives. Teaching, through webinars, conferences, or in a classroom, is an option for those with additional education. Other hygiene leaders leverage their organizational skills, by consulting with offices on issues such as software and insurance coding, or by working with larger organizations on public health and political advocacy. The ways that hygienists can branch out and redefine their roles are continually expanding.
"Maybe a leader's role is to focus more on how we utilize these options to get out where we need to be and really serve the public," Laughter says. "For example, the future may include more cooperative sites where patients come into the center to see a dentist, hygienist, or a doctor, but could also see a lawyer, social worker, or someone who can give them information and guide them through getting help. The collaborative approach is going to be extremely important for our next leaders, which might be the biggest change in the role they need to learn."
From Independence to Leadership
"A leader must be someone who wants to be a leader," Leavitt says. "Not everyone wants to be or is capable of being a team captain. I really enjoy sharing my passion and experiences, and I try to pass on knowledge whenever I come across a new or younger hygienist. It's exciting to open people's minds to the possibilities."
Laughter adds: "Many hygiene programs are teaching leadership skills. There are also student organizations where students can build experience. One example is our Public Service Outreach Program. We teach dental hygiene students community oral health and how to be leaders in the community."
Many jobs in education or consulting require a bachelor's degree, but Leavitt notes that there are many opportunities as an associate. "We might need to desigan a more focused curriculum," Leavitt says, "where you're learning about the role of being an educator, or being in sales, or other career paths, to get students thinking at an earlier stage."
For example, creating an independent hygiene business might be of interest to some entrepreneurial students. "Unfortunately, they often don't know what to do or who to talk to," Leavitt says. "They need guidance from someone else who has done it correctly. That's another essential subject that could be added to curriculum."
In many ways, Laughter says, the younger generation may be better prepared than their predecessors. "They have had training in cultural diversity and critical thinking, beyond the formal clinical education," Laughter says. "Still, we have knowledge and experience to share. I love to be in leadership positions, but I like to know that when I leave, someone else can do it as well as or even better than I did. I believe we really need to work on mentoring. If we don't allow room for the next generation to step up, we lose their limitless potential. By mentoring and embracing the next generation, we promote leadership."
1. October is National Dental Hygiene Month 2020. American Dental Hygienists' Association Web site. https://www.adha.org/national-dental-hygiene-month. Accessed August 30, 2021.
2. Long H, Clement S. Nearly a third of U.S. workers under 40 considered changing careers during the pandemic. The Washington Post. August 16, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2021/08/16/us-workers-want-career-change/. Accessed August 30, 2021.