Growing into Your Own as a Dental Hygienist

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Bright eyed and bushy tailed, I walked into my first day at my brand-new hygiene job. I had all the knowledge from completing hygiene school floating around in my head. I was confident in my ability to connect with patients, educate on oral health, and eradicate disease. Full of good intention, I was ready to tackle my career. Little did I know, I would have my hands full that first day. I would actually have my hands full for the few months, much to my dismay.

First, a little insight into how that first day went. It seemed as if every patient who sat in my chair could sense how new I was. “Is this your first day?” “How long have you been doing this for?” Was I really that inept? Did I smell like a new pair of tennis shoes, fresh out of the box? I truly felt I was confident and comfortable with being a top-notch hygienist. I had a lot to prove though to earn my patients’ trust. I was determined. It was only my first day after all.

Once I finished the first, second, then third patient, I was falling into a groove, getting more comfortable with my operatory and equipment. Then it happened. I was starting one of my last patients for the day. As I was reaching for the suction, my patient started making a noise. I look over, and my hand had accidentally pressed the water button on the air/water syringe, and I was squirting the patient on the side of his head. I was mortified! I tried to make light of the situation, declaring, “water gun fight!” He didn’t seem amused. He laughed gently and asked if I had been doing this long. Epic fail.

Fast forward a year; patients are happy to see I am still at the same office. Comments have changed to, “Oh, I’m glad to see you’re still here.” I must have made some type of good impression on them. I now feel perfectly at home in my operatory. I have my routine. I have a whole arsenal of ideas for patient education. I feel I have good control over my patients’ disease states and am making progress. I have picked up some new techniques from various dentists who volunteer at our clinic, and have become comfortable talking to my patients in a way that makes them feel welcome and at home in “my home,” my office. I no longer shake when giving injections. I can handle a little questioning from curious patients without stumbling over my words. I feel like I have so much experience. Wow, what a difference a year makes!

And now here I am, five years into this profession I truly love. Where did the time go? The growth I have experienced is beyond words. I have a little “family” between my patients and my colleagues. Patients trust me and look to me for answers to their oral health questions. There is an easy rapport between us now. They will openly discuss problems they are having and are willing to make the changes needed to fix those problems. I no longer get skeptic side-long glances from patients. Gone are the days of, “Really lady, that’s nuts.” The reality is now, “I have a problem, what do you suggest?” Exclamations of, “You’re so thorough and I can tell you really care about my health.” Having that connection to people makes a difference. It is something you don’t realize you need to have at an office until you have it.

I pride myself on my ability to gain patient compliance. I took for granted the difference between talking to a patient and truly understanding where they are coming from then tailoring homecare to fit their needs. I thought I “got it” when it came to detecting hard to find calculus. The fact is, I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

I missed more calculus than I like to admit in my first years of practicing hygiene. It took an honest dentist embarrassing me in front of patients (admittedly not the best way to go about things) for me to stop and realize what I was doing – I did need to check my work. I thought I was superhuman. I thought I was better than others. I didn’t think I was “just” human and all humans can make mistakes. It took a while for me to become truly humble. The ability to take a step back and truly assess my work took time to develop. This is what experience is. When you can step back and look at yourself with a critical eye and be willing to make changes and learn new techniques to become better; that is when you have experience. It is a humbleness, a kindness, it is higher level critical thinking. That is experience.

Although five years seems like a short amount of time, technology changes quickly. Keeping up with new techniques and available products is up to you. Your instructors in school will not be there to update you. Take CE courses that teach you about these things and don’t dismiss them just because what you are doing works fine. This is experience. Being stuck in your ways will not produce growth. Having a mind that is hungry for more, always wanting to learn – that is experience, as well. We must remember why we went into this profession, so we could be on a perpetual learning track to bring the best care to our patients. Never take for granted what you know and never get comfortable with where you are.

Looking back, I can now laugh at what I thought I knew. I can appreciate the honest effort that sometimes fell short. I will look back in five more years and shake my head thinking I was “good” then. Being confident is good, of course, and is what helped me get where I am today. I just had to catch myself from thinking I was above being human so I could be the best clinician I can be for my patients. Gaining experience only comes with time. You never know what you are going to learn along the way. Sit back and enjoy the ride in this amazing career we chose.

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