5 Challenges that Hygiene School Grads Face in the Real World

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When you’re fresh out of hygiene school, it’s easy to ride out the high of passing all the dental boards and rigorous classes. You feel like you’re on top of the world, and nothing can bring you down. Unfortunately, some parts of the real dental world can come at you fast. While confidence is the key to being successful after hygiene school, it’s important to prepare for the setbacks you may face.

1) Time isn’t always on your side

Learning how to manage time is possibly the biggest challenge of transitioning from school to the real world. Two-hour appointments are a thing of the past, and suddenly your dentist and office manager expect you to accomplish everything in an hour (or less, if you’re one of the unlucky hygienists).

You’ll quickly learn how short an hour actually is when you have to greet, chart, scale, expose radiographs, etc. your patient while also figuring out how to perfectly time your doctor’s exam and turn over your room for the next patient without running into the next appointment. For a few weeks, it will seem like a discouraging uphill battle that never gets better. Eventually, however, you’ll fall into a rhythm, and it doesn’t seem like such an impossible race against time.

2) Fatigue is real

Another shocker is how fatiguing a full day of seeing patients can be. Some hygiene schools do a mock workday where students get a glimpse of what working a full clinic schedule looks like.

For those who don’t get that opportunity, the first full day of work can be extremely tiring. Like time management, it eventually gets better. The best way to deal with muscle fatigue is to avoid tension and stress, be mindful of ergonomics and positioning, and maintain core strengthening activities outside of the office.

When you’re pressed for time, it’s easy to forget everything hygiene school drilled in your head about ergonomics. However, taking the time to position your patient and yourself correctly can help cut down on the time you spend thinking about your muscle fatigue at the end of the day.

3) Calculus checks still exist

When you see the passing score on your clinical exam, it tends to make you feel totally invincible. By then, you’ll probably feel like you’ve peaked in your clinical performance. Unfortunately, you’ll have plenty of those days where you can’t seem to get the subgingival calculus on the distal of those mandibular molars.

Instead of getting points deducted in clinic, the dentist will probably look over his/her glasses at you with that speck of calculus on the end of the Columbia, and you’ll probably feel instantly deflated. Hopefully, your dentist will be gracious and pull you aside later to give you some encouraging pointers for next time instead of humiliating you in front of the patient. However, if you get called out in front of the patient, use it as a learning experience for next time instead of feeling defeated.

Even the best hygienists can miss calculus from time to time. Being vigilant and checking yourself as you go can keep you from missing most spots. However, when you come to an area that just won’t budge, there is no shame in alerting your dentist to the patient’s trouble spot.

Asking for tips from the office’s seasoned hygienists can also cut down on the calculus missed. Most offices will understand that there is an adjustment time between school and work. Always ask for help when needed.

4) Insurance is a big deciding factor

Learning all the dental codes in school and determining when to use which one is challenging, but the real challenge comes when insurance dictates every aspect of the appointment. Most patients that have insurance will only want the treatment that is covered in their plan. Convincing a patient that they need x-rays, fluoride, or periodontal treatment, for example, can be frustrating when the patient isn’t willing to pay.

In a perfect world, the patient would be compliant with all necessary treatment, but that isn’t always the case. Don’t be discouraged if a patient doesn’t understand why the treatment is being proposed and subsequently turns it down. Sometimes you have to be creative when relating the treatment to the patient. Be persistent yet sensitive with these patients, and eventually, something you say may encourage them to comply even if the treatment isn’t covered by insurance.

5) Who are you?

Be prepared to be questioned by patients for at least a year. You’ll hear variations of the following: “Where is (insert other hygienist’s name)?” “How long have you been here?” “How long have you been out of school?” “Are you aware of (insert individual’s treatment considerations/plan/contraindications)?”

Be mindful that patients are just as intimidated by change as we are as hygienists, so it can be off-putting when their routine is disturbed. Even if the patient throws a tantrum in front of the whole waiting room when you call them back instead of their regular hygienist, be kind to them. Even if the patient tells you how let down they are to be treated by you, be cordial. Even if the patient says, they hoped to be with someone else, be patient with them.

When I’ve been in these exact situations, it would’ve been easy to snap back. However, taking the high road can play to your advantage later. The very same patients that voice their disappointment in having you will be more apt to change their mind if you provide top-notch care with a good attitude despite their childish behavior. Don’t take premature criticism personally; most patients are just genuinely anxious about the unknown of being in your care.

Graduating hygiene school is an incredible accomplishment, and you should be confident in your abilities because of it. However, preparing yourself for the potential challenges of the real world can keep you from falling flat on your face. Knowing what lies ahead can arm you with the proper tools to face these challenges without being discouraged.

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