Michelle Watkins, RDH
Michelle is a dental hygienist with a history working in private practice, public health, education and advocacy.
As dental hygienists, we mostly offer dental services under the general supervision of a dentist. Although this is slowly changing, it is still very much the norm. So we often have to ask for new instruments or certain products we want to use in the operatory with the fear of rejection.
I have several stories about advocating for myself, which may help you, too.
Experience 1: A difficult operatory set-up
I had only been a dental hygienist for about four months. I went to do a working interview at an older, well-established practice. At the end of the day, the doctor asked me what I thought about working for him and how I liked the operatory. I told him I very much enjoyed my day but struggled a little bit ergonomically because the operatory was set up for a left-handed practitioner.
He denied my claim and said, “I have been here for 24 years and not one hygienist has ever said anything about it.” I told him I’d be happy to show him if he’d like, and of course he took me up on the offer.
We walked back to the operatory, and I showed him how I practice and how this particular set up was difficult to work in. He was stunned. “How could all these hygienists over the years never say anything?” I joked that maybe he had hired a long string of south paws over the years. He chuckled and looked exasperated.
He said, “If I re-plumbed this for you, would you consider working here?” I presented my case like a healthcare worker who had certain needs to practice and was taken seriously. While I realize not all doctors would behave this way, I think he was actually embarrassed that his employees couldn’t come to him for their problems.
Experience 2: Poor instrument quality
I went to fill in for a doctor who had unexpectedly lost his hygienist of 5 years. I went in and was shocked at the quality of hygiene instruments. Tips were broken and whittled down to thin, unusable blades. I dug through sterilized pouches to try to find something usable. I couldn’t believe this hygienist was using this stuff.
I could hardly do my job well that day. I had to basically rely on the cavitron, alone, and I didn’t feel comfortable about it. I debated on what to do – should I say something, or just never go back? Maybe he was the reason she didn’t have good instruments?
The poor patients weren’t getting thorough cleanings and I didn’t want my name on that. So again, at the end of the day, the doctor came up to me and said, “How was your day? We would love to have you come back and help us out more if you’re interested.”
Here was my chance. I had to say something.
I said, “Well, I’m not sure if you knew or not, but the instruments are in poor, poor condition, making me very nervous to use them. I don’t feel good about the quality of cleanings I provided today.”
Again, I saw the same look of shock and horror as the last doctor as he said, “Please show me.” So we pulled out all the packs and he was absolutely astonished. “How could my last hygienist even do anything? Why didn’t she say anything?” Again, I’m not sure. He said, “Will you help us figure out what is needed so I can get these all replaced?”
Experience 3: Broken equipment
A hygienist called me to cover for her in her office. Of course after I had already signed up to work there, she gave me a heads up that the cavitron wasn’t working. I work using the dual method technique, ultrasonic scaler and then hand scale, so this was going to be a major feat for me.
I subbed for her and at some point, the doctor came in and asked me about my day and if there was anything he could do for me. I said, “I had a great day and loved the patients. But did you know the ultrasonic scaler is broken?”
Same look of horror I had seen in the last two scenarios, followed by, ”What do you mean? Why didn’t she tell me? How long has it been this way?” Again, “I sure can’t say.”
Don't be afraid to ask
All three scenarios have the same thread in my mind. The hygienist made assumptions or was afraid of asking. I’ll admit even for myself, asking for things in my job feels like asking daddy for money at times. It’s uncomfortable and can be awkward.
But I figure, the worst thing the dentist can say is no. And if the answer is still no after I’ve asked for what I want and why in a professional manner, then is this a good fit for me?
I have a job to do and if I’m doing a professional job, I deserve to have the tools required to do the job well. With that said, I don’t mean the most expensive bells and whistles. I look for quality products to make my job easier so I can provide excellent care to my patients.
Consider benefits, too
I have also been one to consider wage in regard to benefits. Hygiene students often ask me, “How much should I ask to be paid?” Well, that depends on a lot of things: Will there be benefits? Will you make your own schedule? Will you be expected to clock out when a no-show occurs, or hit the phones? Will you be in charge of your hygiene supplies and be able to order what products you like to use? Will it be full-time? What will your duties be?
So much to consider. I have taken high-paying jobs with no benefits, and also low-paying jobs with extra benefits that make up for it – benefits that include quality instruments, quality schedule, a great work environment, etc.
I think the most important factor in being able to advocate for yourself in the workplace is professionalism. Do you come across as a dedicated professional? Self-evaluate, take pride in your work and advocate for yourself like the dental professional you are. Build relationships with your co-workers or boss to feel like you can talk to them about issues in the workplace.