National Dental Hygienist Month

Author: Dr. David Dickerhoff, DDS, MAGD, FOCOI

October is National Dental Hygienist Month. Today, I want to elaborate on why they are such an essential part of providing oral health care within our health care system. It starts with their training where many colleges throughout the country offer a hygiene training program. Most candidates that apply to hygiene training programs often already have their baccalaureate degree and specialize in hygienist training.  Fayetteville Technical Community College and Wake Forest offer excellent twoyear training programs within our local area leading to an associate RDH  (Registered Dental Hygiene) degree and are geared to give their students the skills to seamlessly enter into the health care market.

The greatest fallacy attributed to how the public sees the role of a dental hygienist is that they only clean teeth.  While they are excellent at accomplishing this difficult task, the degrees of complexity of this task needs to be elaborated. Here we are talking about treatment planning the patient and where their level of cleaning falls on the hygiene spectrum. Some patients have no dental disease and only need to be coached, examined and reinforced. Do not minimize this benefit that your hygienist provides as most of us are not proficient at identifying dental health risk factors, plaque identification and techniques for its removal and prevention. Each patient visit includes a full medical and dental history with blood pressure and oral cancer screening.  

Understanding the complexity of medical conditions, medications, allergies and anxiety levels are all part of a hygienist’s skill level and training. They pride themselves on being lifelong learners and are constantly reading and studying, as well as attending continuing education courses required for their recertification. Other patients have such complex problems such as periodontal bone loss, abscesses, necrotic pulps (dead teeth), cavities, impactions and malocclusions. This subset of patients has to be diagnosed and treated appropriately based on their needs. Here is where the complexity of a highly trained, highly motivated hygienist can benefit you the most. I have only lightly touched on the complexities of periodontal disease and its myriads of treatments and therapies. But your hygienist patiently and confidently sits and explains your situation and the choices you can make to regain health as well as preventive strategies for better health.

Safely treating their patients requires a hygienist to know past medical history and past dental history. Our hygienists spend a great deal of their days in homework on their patient schedule so that at our morning huddle, we can discuss the total patient and how to deliver health care safely and efficiently based upon the needs of the patient. These needs include elective and preventive care, such as placing preventive sealants, bleaching, night-guards, tobacco cessation and chemotherapeutics (using medications to accomplish a certain goal). On complex and atrisk patients, they deliver prophylactic oxygen and nitrous oxide (laughing gas) on vital monitoring devices and are trained to recognize medical emergencies and poor outcomes.

Their training and skills include recognizing both soft tissue and hard tissue pathology. They are adept at taking diagnostic digital radiography and identifying any abnormalities and assisting their dentist in treatment recommendations. As I write this column, it occurs to me that I have only touched on the tip of the iceberg in what a hygienist does for their patients. I have been very fortunate to have four very senior hygienists on my staff at Spring Lake Dental Group that have been with me for over fifteen years.  They are Bonnie Lott RDH, Tracey Perry Johnson RDH, Angela Weaver Blake RDH, and Shannon Sutton RDH. These are amazing hygienists who are highly skilled and dedicated to their profession and their patients. This month, we celebrate them and the dedication they bring to the workplace each and every day.