The words we choose to use can be very powerful. You may have heard that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” – poppycock! The words we use or hear from others can be very far from harmless! How we filter and interpret the words we hear or how we choose the words we use are not the result of simple chance, but are the result of who we are. Words we use are the sum total of almost everything that has happened in our lives: what we believe about ourselves, others, and the world; our faith and values; and education. Every word we choose to use can build understanding or inadvertently cause misunderstanding. As soon as the words come out of our mouths or onto paper, we have had an influence how the hearer or reader will act or react – on purpose or not.
Language also impacts the way people view dental and allied dental professionals and the value of the work that they do. Oral health care providers should use a common language to stimulate meaningful and positive interpretations of oral health care. The individual oral health care provider in day-to-day interactions, organized professional groups, educators, other health care professionals, and key partners in oral health care – we have the opportunity to influence the language that we use for greater understanding and cooperation.
When we choose words wisely in discussing or describing our individual roles in oral health care, the services we provide, or our profession, we may impart a positive perception or a very negative one.
Consider the image communicated by asking our patients or clients to come in for just a “prophy” or a “simple cleaning” or “scaling” rather than “initial care” or “preventive oral health care” or “nonsurgical periodontal care.” The terms “prophy” and “cleaning” do not present the full range of preventive skills or the level of care that the service will provide for the patient. Likewise, we tend to speak of “deep cleaning” rather than “nonsurgical periodontal care;” of “checking the patient” as opposed to “evaluating outcomes of care;” of “plate, cap, or bridge” instead of “denture, crown, or prosthetic appliance;” etc.
Even among ourselves, we sometimes fail to differentiate between the education, certification, and licensure of the individuals in the office. We’ve learned here that the primary members of the dental team are the dentist, dental assistant, dental hygienist, dental laboratory technician and dental therapist. Some refer to the dental team as being comprised of the dentist and the dental “auxiliaries” or worse the dentist and the “girls,” because often the allied dental personnel tend to be women. We are further along in terms of gender equality than this terminology might imply. Use of the word “girl” has no place in health care, especially in light of the intellectual decisions, care and responsibility necessary in evidence-based decision making, collaborative practice, co-therapy, or the new workforce models for allied dental health professionals. Frankly those archaic terms no longer fit. Why not call the oral health care professional by his or her professional designation: dentist, dental therapist, dental hygienist, dental assistant, dental laboratory technologist, office manager, staff member, or oral health care team member?
The words we use can either make us seem foolish and demean what we do, or our words can present a picture in a person’s mind of a professional health care provider, a person with the necessary education, training, certification, or licensure who is qualified to provide oral health care for the well-being of the patients that we serve. How DO we want our patients and health care colleagues to view the oral health professions of dentistry, dental assisting, dental hygiene, dental laboratory technology, or dental therapy? Use the language that will identify you and the profession that you’ve chosen as having the importance that it deserves. You ARE oral health care!