Karen Walker, dental hygienist and trainer, reminds us of the pivotal role played by dental hygienists and therapists in a modern practice, and gives us a taster of how she aims to empower them to be recognised as autonomous practitioners 

The role of the dental hygienist and therapist in a general dental practice can be a tricky path to tread. Rarely involved in practice management decisions or in control of a budget, it can often feel that we are not valued as autonomous practitioners. This stasis is a source of great frustration to me personally, and I believe a missed opportunity for dental practices, as many fail to take advantage of the added value a fully integrated hygiene and therapy service can bring.

The role of a dental hygienist and therapist is multi-faceted and we can add value in many different ways; obviously the promotion of good oral health with the education and prevention of dental diseases is at the forefront of every aspect of our careers. However, our remit also extends to implant maintenance, tooth whitening, routine restorations in both deciduous and permanent dentitions and the less tangible but equally important areas of patient communication and education, through which we add an extra dimension to the patient-practice relationship. When dental hygienist and therapists are truly integrated into the practice team, they become central to its daily operations, forging mutually beneficial relationships with patients through regular appointments.

So, I ask myself, when our role is so pivotal, why is it often so difficult to make our voice heard?

You’ve got the power

I meet a lot of hygienists and therapists in clinical practice and in my role as lecturer who mention the frustrations they feel in their practices where they often struggle to be heard. Many find it hard to get budget approved for new equipment or replacement parts, which limits their ability to provide the standard of care they wish to achieve for their patients. This also compromises their own professional satisfaction in their quest to forge successful and meaningful careers.

I feel that it is possible to change the way we are so often perceived within the practices we contribute so much to. It begins with having the confidence and belief in ourselves as clinicians, enabling us to fluently articulate our obligations and requirements to ensure that the level of professionalism within our careers is achieved and maintained, and to do that we must become empowered.

We know that practice owners have a huge workload, including complying with CQC and GDC guidelines, running a business, managing employees, buildings and facilities maintenance – the list goes on. It stands to reason that they will appreciate a colleague who has a ready-made solution to a problem, or a costed plan for a new piece of equipment that clearly demonstrates the benefits of purchasing and the expected return on investment. A proactive approach and practical solution can have powerfully positive results.

Empowering the hygienist

It’s strategies like these that I teach: simple, realistic solutions with the aim of enhancing the quality of the dental hygienist’s working environment to ultimately provide job satisfaction and support for their clinical achievements.

I encourage an open and honest dialogue with the delegates as we share and reflect on different ideas and discuss different strategies, including tools to enhance professional development in line with the GDC’s new guidelines on personal development plans. Since many of us are self-employed and peripatetic, we also look at the options for investing in equipment and how this can be achieved.

My aim is for you to have an invigorated approach to life as a dental hygienist, feeling renewed and reassured as well as being able to execute the practical advice learnt on the course, indeed ’empowering’ the delegate to ensure a successful, long and fulfilling career as an autonomous clinician within our rewarding profession.