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Oral Health United: Introducing a dental community for us, by us

Sarah Lawrence, RDH, introduces Oral Health United, a community for dental professionals in a pandemic-shifted world. Learn more about this safe virtual space for honest discussion, genuine relationship-building, and collaborative solutions.

I’ve heard this statement echoed over and over again in the dental industry—and chances are, you have too. It’s an understandable sentiment, to a degree. As dental professionals, we’re tasked with providing crucial preventive care for our patients—and so much of that care truly needs to be “by the book.” But as COVID-19 forces dental professionals and practices to grapple with a new normal, what needs to change? At a time when so many dental professionals feel unsafe, unheard, and uncared for, how can we come together to build a community of respect, compassion, and empowerment?

As a clinical hygienist with more than 13 years of experience, I’ve noticed a long-standing problem in our industry: We are an extremely divided community. Even before COVID-19, there was always a bit of strain in communication, to say the least, between employers and employees, and between clinical staff and administrators.

Now that COVID-19 has brought on a frenzied atmosphere of ever-changing safety protocols and standards, it’s more imperative than ever that we repair these divisions. We can no longer afford to work in silos, in the name of doing things as they’ve “always” been done. To practice safely—and to deliver the best possible care for our patients—we must learn to embrace conflict in the workplace, speak to one another with compassion, and grow as a united community. That’s why I’m proud to announce the creation of Oral Health United (OHU), a modern community built for dental professionals, by dental professionals, in a pandemic-shifted world.

A bit of background: In February, I founded the COVID-19 Dental Discussion Facebook Group in the hopes that professionals would finally have a safe space to discuss their concerns about the pandemic. I didn’t expect the group to grow as much as it did; eight months later, we have more than 19,000 members—and our community has discussed everything from the ethics of showing up to work while sick to the right kinds of personal protective equipment (PPE), to the best way to confront your boss about the lack of adequately implemented safety protocols in the workplace.

I have been stunned to see the breadth of the discussions, the number of members who chose to post anonymously due to fear of retaliation—and to see the bitter divisions that became so obvious in this kind of online forum. I’ve never been one to support censorship, but I also believe wholeheartedly in expressing differences with respect and good intentions. It became clear to me that we needed a more robust and thoughtful tool for building our community, one focused on problem-solving together with kindness, curiosity, and professionalism.

OHU is the response to that experience—a discussion group 2.0 if you will. The community is led by 10 amazing dental practitioners and professionals, including yours truly, and is designed to be a safe virtual space for honest discussion, genuine relationship-building, and collaborative solutions. We’ve listened carefully to the concerns and questions professionals have so graciously shared with us on the Facebook group to build a community that will celebrate our differences, set the stage for respectful discussions, and encourage innovation and curiosity without the fear of retaliation. It’s a place to be human first, practitioner second—to challenge the status quo in our industry with radical compassion.

Future programs through OHU include an emotional wellness program that supports our community as it moves from trauma to renewal, an exclusive marketplace of useful and environmentally produced products and services to support our frontline workforce, and virtual support groups that can provide a more personalized and intimate experience for our members. That’s just the beginning—and as part of the Care for a Better Tomorrow (CFABT) campaign, we’re supported by a wider network of dental practitioners, practices, brands, and innovators who are determined to transform our industry for the better.

One of those partners is onDiem, a national on-demand staffing platform that has already shifted the industry by being the first to offer W-2 benefits for dental professionals like me. They’ve been instrumental in getting OHU off the ground, and our partnership is a shining example of the positive human impact we can make when we work together with a unified purpose.

“If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we’re all interconnected in this industry,” Joe Fogg, CEO & co-founder of onDiem, told me. “Professionals and clinicians are at the heart of what we do—and who we serve. If they’re hurting, we’re hurting. Helping stand up in the OHU community isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s an acknowledgment that we all must share in the effort to create a stronger industry for all.”

Let’s be clear: OHU isn’t designed to be a retreat from the difficult questions; it’s designed to address them head-on, with courage and creativity. It’s a safe space for not-so-savory discussions because, in order to advocate for the safety and health of our patients, we must learn to advocate for ourselves. Pouring from an empty cup isn’t just impossible; in our world, it’s risky business. As dental professionals, we must approach ourselves with renewed compassion, and ask: What needs to change in order for us to thrive in this industry? What do we need to feel whole? What do we need to feel fully equipped and empowered to deliver life-saving preventive care for our patients? We might not have all the answers now, but we can learn and iterate together—and to me, that’s a powerful beginning.

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