• Editor-in-Chief, Inside Dental Assisting
• Executive Committee & Board Member, Oral Health America
Her dental assisting career began by accident—literally, when a high school track injury landed her in the dental chair, recalls Kathy Zwieg, LDA, CDA, Editor-in-Chief of Inside Dental Assisting. “I was so impressed with the dental assistant—the way she communicated with me, how she was able to comfort me,” she says. “She provided the knowledge and education that I needed to understand what was wrong and what was going to happen as a result. Then I watched her communicate so effectively with the dentist and the other team members as well, and I said to myself, ‘I want to be like her.’”
Her goal established, Zwieg graduated with an AS degree from what is now Century College, and immediately continued on to the University of Minnesota. “It provided me a wonderful opportunity to work and take classes at the same time,” she explains. “One of my goals was to be able to teach in the dental assisting programs in the area. At that time, you needed to have at least 5,000 clinical hours and your state teaching certificate. The very day I had enough hours, I began teaching part time.”
When Zwieg commits to an organization, she tends to stay long-term. She was with her first employer for 10 years, starting chairside, then moving into the front office and practice management. “I had the good fortune to work for a dentist who was an advocate of continuous learning and growth opportunities,” she says. “He was wonderful—if I got a call to go teach, someone else could come in and cover my responsibilities, which gave me more opportunities to do what I love.”
At this first practice, Zwieg also worked with two dental assistants who had a life-changing impact on her—Carolyn Weber and Mary Breedlove. “These women, who had worked together for more than 30 years, exemplified the dental assistant’s role,” she says. “Although I had done well academically, I had a lot of life lessons to be learned, and they both practiced those life lessons daily. They knew how to treat people, how to communicate effectively. I really can attribute my entire success to Mary and Carolyn, because without their state of grace I would not be where I am today.”
Zwieg discovered that she enjoyed practice management—the operations and business aspects of dentistry. She joined Park Dental/American Dental Partners, where she stayed for 20 years, beginning as operations coordinator, then moving into practice management, operations manager, and, finally, finishing her career with them as director of professional relations.
“I love working in all aspects of dentistry,” she explains. “In addition to the journal, I’m interested in oral–systemic health, working with people representing all aspects of healthcare. I believe it is imperative that medicine and dentistry operate under that total healthcare umbrella—and we need to be communicating with each other. Together we can all achieve more, providing the best and highest quality of care for the citizens of our country.”
Naturally, Zwieg is firmly convinced of the impact dental assistants can have on the quality of patient care. “In some states right now, dental assistants have a very strong role,” she says. “I think they could be much more influential across the country if there were some recognized standard of baseline education and credentialing.
“To use Minnesota as an example—the state established education and credentialing for dental assistants back in the 1970s. As a result, I have observed some of the highest levels of communication and professional respect between all members of the dental team. Dental assistants enjoy a very positive relationship with the Minnesota Dental Association, which recognizes them as a professional group.”
As a dedicated proponent of education and continuous learning, Zwieg believes this is a fundamental aspect of improving patient care, especially for underserved populations. “I’m not just advocating for dental assistants because I am part of the profession,” she explains. “The bottom line on education is the quality of patient care.
“For example, I believe that we’re missing the boat by not utilizing dental assistants more effectively to help address the access to care issue,” she says. “We know right now that there are over 300,000 dental assistants in the country, yet we don’t have access to all of them. That absolutely keeps me awake at night, knowing that we could be doing a much better job at addressing access to care. I’d like to see all professions within dentistry—working in concert with the healthcare community—come together to address this issue.”
Zwieg was recently appointed to the Minnesota E-Health Advisory Committee. “I see this as the next step forward on the healthcare horizon—electronic records,” she says. “And while the dentist may be writing the check for that new program for the practice, the dental assistant will be the one highly involved in doing the research and making the decision. The implementation is going to fall on our shoulders.”
Ultimately, Zwieg views the profession as one with amazing opportunities to “follow your passions. You have to believe in yourself and in your work. You can climb the ladder as high as you allow yourself. For example, if you’re interested in working in pediatric dentistry, talk with people who are already in the field—the same with orthodontics or oral surgery, teaching or practice management. Connect with people, and ask questions. You can go places that you never thought you could.”