New Dental Hygiene Grads: 10 Tips for Transitioning to Practice

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New graduate, I know the past few years probably seem like a blur to you. You’ve endured many hours of studying, mock boards, clinicals, taking tests, meeting proficiencies, late-night cram sessions, searching for that perfect board patient, and now it has finally paid off!

Be proud of your dental hygiene school accomplishments. You really have done so much in a short amount of time! You have now graduated, passed your boards, and now can add the coveted RDH to your name. Kudos to you, but you may be asking yourself: Now what?

Take it from me, who was a new graduate back in the early 1990s. I wish that a seasoned hygienist would have taken the time to share with me a few things about my chosen profession ─ the good, bad, and the ugly. There are several things to be aware of as you enter your new career, and I want to highlight some that I feel will benefit you the most.

1) Be Confident but Teachable

The transition from dental hygiene school to private practice is very different and can, at times, be overwhelming. You have the skills necessary to do the best job for your patients, but you should be willing to take tips or advice from trusted coworkers. They may have an easier way to accomplish a task or know about a product that is tried-and-true that you were never shown in school.

Rely on your education, but don’t discount helpful ideas from others.

2) Be Organized and Stocked Up.

I cannot tell you the number of hours I probably wasted looking for things or moving things around to get what I needed due to a lack of being organized. The operatory should be stocked and set up to best suit you. Store things you need in convenient, easy to reach places.

I am five feet tall, so nothing I truly need goes on high shelves. Group together all your prophy items in one drawer for quick room turnovers. Make sure cassettes are in the order you prefer so you can easily grab your instruments of choice without rummaging through the cassettes to find them.

3) Take Care of Yourself

Let’s face it, hygiene is a physically demanding job and can take a toll on our bodies in a short period of time. Remember your ergonomics, please! All the bending and contorting are truly detrimental.

Your posture as well as using loupes and the proper equipment is essential, even if you must purchase it yourself. Trust me; it’s worth the investment. The kinder you are to your body now, the better it will be to you 15 or 20 years down the road.

Don’t hesitate to find a great masseuse and visit them frequently to keep those knots and aches from developing with daily work.

4) Co-diagnose

When you see something or even think you see something, tell the doctor. It’s great for the patient to be made aware of a potential issue before the exam, and most dentists appreciate that the patient has already been briefed about possible treatment needs.

This also helps you to learn how your doctor diagnoses needed treatment and lets the doctor know about the patients’ periodontal health. In most general dental offices, you are the eyes and mouth for that patient’s periodontal health, so speak up and let your light shine.

5) Invest in Your Patients

Get to know them as people, their family, their interests, etc. Yes, absolutely take care of their dental needs, but don’t be so focused that you forget there is a person attached to that mouth.

If you are in an office for any length of time, you will see these people regularly, and it becomes a welcoming, favorable experience if there is a true connection between you both. They already assume you are a great clinician; show them you’re a great person too.

6) Be a Blessing to Your Team

Be happy, be on time, smile, skip the drama, laugh, and enjoy the day. If you can help in any way, do it! Most dental practices are very busy, and there is always something to do.

If you happen to have a few minutes and can help the assistants catch up on sterilization, please do! If the doctor’s patient is waiting, and you have a minute to grab a quick periapical radiograph for them, please do! If the trash is overflowing in the restroom and you can change the bag, please do!

And my personal favorite: Got a sweet tooth? If picking up doughnuts for yourself, treat the team! I know they are not good for us, but they are so good.

7) Search and Find Your Perfect Workplace

It may not happen right away, but it might! Find the office that best aligns with your views and philosophies about dentistry and life in general. You will most likely spend many hours a day in your office, and I can’t stress how important it is to be happy while you are there.

If you are not on the same page with the people you are working for or with, look elsewhere. Attitude, culture, ethics, and integrity of the office are very important when making your decision about where to spend your time.

8) There Will be Bad Days

It’s going to happen. You may run behind, take non-diagnostic, overlapped bitewings, miss a piece of calculus, or fail to pick up on a carious lesion. You may have a grumpy patient who is rude for no apparent reason. The doctor or a coworker may be in a foul mood and take it out on you.

Remember, it’s just one day. Keep your cool and smile through it. You are learning and try to gain insight from each experience.

9) Don’t Hesitate to Take the Lead

Just because you are fresh out of school does not mean you can’t be the leader in some area for your office. Offer to be involved in whatever area you are best suited.

Maybe you are great at social media and could head up the office Facebook or Instagram page. Maybe you are a stickler for organization and would be great at handling the supply orders. Maybe you are awesome at planning events. Organize a patient appreciation day or team-building seminars. Just be involved and try to contribute.

10) Trust Yourself

Don’t forget that you are a highly trained health care professional who is very capable of treating patients and helping them preserve their teeth for a lifetime. Rely on your education and your instincts.

Ask questions when necessary. Don’t be ashamed to say, “I don’t know, but I can find out for you.”

Most importantly, just have fun and enjoy the ride of being a dental hygienist. It’s the best one I’ve ever taken.

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