I recently heard a story about a dental practice where the hygienist’s ‘surgery’ was carved out and located in the cubbyhole under the stairs.

Picture a triangular room, a slanting ceiling and the ‘thud, thump’ of footsteps providing a soundtrack to a relaxing treatment procedure. A ‘genius’ dentist saving a few pennies and investing wisely in their practice!

I hope my friend was exaggerating this tale, but I feel there is an element of truth, having experienced first-hand the  phenomenon that I have heard called ‘the hygienist in the cupboard’.

Just a helper?

I graduated in 2004 with the mindset that the hygienist was merely the dentist’s helper. At the time, hygienists were segregated from the dental students in Cork Dental School, our clinical pathways and treatment plans rarely intersecting. Even our social lives were separate.

Fourteen years on, things have changed across the world. The dental hygienist is an essential part of the dental team, the focal point of the dental practice.

In our practice, we aim to have all new patients assessed first by our hygienist. She assesses the patient, devises a preventive strategy, discusses hygiene techniques and reveals all her finding with the patient using the intraoral camera.

She builds a rapport with the patient, helps put them at ease, gives them some useful dental samples as gifts to try at home, all before the patient has seen the dentist. Our hygienist then provides the dentist with an overview of her findings, before the dentist requests aids to diagnosis such as a radiograph, which she can then provide.

The patient has the benefit of having two clinicians discuss their treatment plan, liaise on the best sequence, and asks questions and express concerns to. This helps the often anxious new patient build trust and confidence.

Thick and thin

The days of the dentist doing it all are behind us. The hygienist has a broad range of skills that must be fully utilised. This scope of clinical practice continues to grow and hopefully it is only a matter of time until the hygienist is permitted to take impressions or train to fulfil the role of a dental therapist.

Let’s consider the amount of experience a typical hygienist has. I have worked alongside hygienists who have served five years as a dental nurse/receptionist/practice manager before formally training full-time at third level as a dental nurse for two years, another year in oral hygiene promotion and management, and then entering Cork Dental School to train as a hygienist for another two years of full-time education.

In addition to their formal training during holiday time, they work in dental hospitals assisting the professors and preparing instruments for sterilisation, and so on.

That’s five years of formal education and a further five on-the-job experience. And this is not unique. Your hygienist has a wealth of experience in the dental world, yet they are still often overlooked as the person that just ‘cleans the teeth’.

Get the hygienist out of the cupboard, utilise their range of skills and talents. I believe a dedicated, motivated hygienist is the core of the dental practice, who can orchestrate the dental team to deliver high-quality dental care and a top-class patient experience.

Hygienists can teach us dentists a thing or two!

Don’t miss the Irish Dental Hygienists Association (IDHA) Annual Winter Scientific Conference 2018 on 9-10 November at Radisson Blu Athlone.