Darlene J. Swigart, RDH, BS, works full-time as a practicing dental hygienist in Oceanside, California, while also earning a Master of Science in Dental Hygiene degree with an emphasis in education from Idaho State University (ISU) in Pocatello. After 30 years of dental experience—first as a registered dental assistant and then as a dental hygienist in general and periodontal practices—Swigart decided to pursue her dream of becoming a teacher. Graduate school has reignited her love of learning.
Swigart was recently appointed to the American Dental Hygienists’ Association Dental Hygiene Diagnosis Task Force, which complements the research she is conducting in collaboration with ISU faculty members on dental hygiene diagnosis. She coauthored an article on the topic “Implementing Dental Hygiene Diagnosis Into Practice” with ISU Graduate Program Director JoAnn Gurenlian, RDH, MS, PhD, which was published in the September issue of Dimensions of Dental Hygiene. Passionate about head and neck cancer prevention and early diagnosis, Swigart is currently developing a tool that will assist dental hygienists in teaching patients how to perform head and neck cancer self-exams.
What led you to pursue a master’s degree?
In 2008, my husband was injured in an accident, requiring him to retire early. I felt so fortunate that my career as a dental hygienist enabled me to financially support our family. I am a goal setter and a planner at heart. When our youngest daughter entered high school, I reevaluated my career path to set goals for the next 20 years. I knew I wanted to apply my experience in dental hygiene practice toward a teaching position. Although I knew how to be an effective dental hygienist, I did not feel prepared to enter the teaching arena without the appropriate education. The knowledge I have gained through the ISU graduate program has been invaluable. Balancing a full-time dental hygiene position with graduate coursework, research, and family life can be challenging, but I enjoy learning and look forward to encouraging future dental hygienists in the career I love.
You are passionate about head and neck cancer prevention. What sparked your interest in this arena?
With more than 30 years of experience as a health care provider, I have seen the devastation caused by the late detection of all forms of cancer. Early diagnosis can mean the difference between life and death. My interest in the early diagnosis of head and neck cancer began with a collaborative research project I conducted on toluidine blue. Just this year, one of my patients complained of a vision problems in one eye. Her symptoms were not normal, but she had recently seen her ophthalmologist and did not want to call him again. I made her promise she would call that day and make an appointment. At her next dental hygiene appointment, she thanked me for saving her life. Her symptoms were caused by a brain tumor that needed to be surgically removed. Dental hygienists spend more one-on-one time with patients than most health care professionals. We are trained to look for the abnormal, which may lead to saving a life.
What is the tool you are working on to aid in the early detection of head and neck cancers?
I have a deep desire to see a campaign derived from the dental hygiene profession that teaches patients how to do head and neck self-exams and to become aware of signs and symptoms of head and neck cancers. Because I work in private practice, I also know how valuable time is for dental hygienists. I am currently working on a simple checklist of the steps needed to conduct a self-exam that also provides the signs and symptoms of head and neck cancers. The idea is to give the patient a mirror and go through the steps of the exam. Then the patient takes the checklist home so he or she has as an easy-to-follow reference.
Through the encouragement of Ellen Rogo, RDH, PhD, one of my professors at ISU, I am also researching information on the development of a head and neck cancer prevention and early diagnosis app. I am working with an app designer to provide a video of the head and neck self-exam for patients to follow, a list of signs and symptoms, pictures of abnormal tissue, list of risk factors, preventive steps, tobacco cessation information, and a reminder notice for the monthly head and neck cancer self-exam.
What do you love about clinical practice? What do you find most challenging?
I love to help people. After assessing patients, I ask myself what I can do to improve not only their oral health but also their overall health. Changing how patients view their oral health or overall health so they can make better choices for themselves is very rewarding. Some changes might include acceptance of dental hygiene therapy, self-care education, or recare recommendations. My goal is to make a connection and foster a relationship with patients that is built on trust and open communication. When education on the etiology of oral health signs and symptoms translates into improved self-care and oral health, I feel a true sense of accomplishment.
The area I find most challenging is smoking cessation in long-term smokers. Deep down most of these patients want to quit smoking, but they often have difficulty implementing a cessation plan that is maintained over time.
What advice would you give clinical dental hygienists who are interested in changing career paths?
First, do not be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and pursue a new professional avenue. Search the options available for dental hygienists in order to determine the right path for you. Clinicians should consider what they’re passionate about when choosing this path. Second, careers should be in a field that awakens a desire to learn and grow. Talk with and observe dental hygienists who are working in your chosen path. The American Dental Hygienists’ Association website (adha.org) provides a wealth of information. Once the path is selected, thoroughly research the education necessary, evaluate the different programs available, and speak with program directors before making a decision. Finally, although changing career paths can be challenging, you will not be disappointed. The opportunities for dental hygienists have never been more broad or exciting.
Where do you hope to see the profession of dental hygiene in the next 5 years, 10 years?
We are a caring profession, and dental hygienists love people. My hope for our profession over the next decade is to see dental hygiene advanced practitioners licensed in every state—and with the ability to be compensated through insurance and Medicare. These amazing dental hygienists are reaching and treating underserved populations in many diverse locations. As this area of dental hygiene grows and is established throughout the United States, we can expect to see not only improved oral health, but also improved whole health for these individuals, their communities, and the country.
I also hope to see monumental changes in collaboration between health care practitioners in all fields through research and daily practices. For example, dental hygiene advanced practitioners working in practices with nurse practitioners and dietitians in clinics and schools could use their areas of expertise to collectively educate and improve the health of the poor, ill, and disadvantaged. Dental hygienists can be the catalyst for this change and unification. Finally, my hope for our profession and for all dental professionals is to put the patient’s needs, the community’s needs, and the health needs of our country at the forefront of all legislation and association endeavors. Dental hygienists are excellent health care educators, and my hope is that each dental hygienist will feel appreciated for this important area of expertise.