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Mentoring in dental hygiene: The facts and the fun

June 20, 2019
A good mentoring relationship in dental hygiene can last a lifetime and serve both the mentor and the mentee

Do you have a mentor? I have several mentors and am proud to serve as one for others, but this wasn’t always the case. I graduated from dental hygiene school and took a position at a solo dental practice. Reflecting on this experience more than 19 years ago, there were protocols that did not align with the best practices we were taught in school. During my early years, I watched periodontal disease worsen in many of my patients because we monitored it until it was severe enough to refer to a periodontist and only did scaling and root planing if there was radiographic calculus. We administered fluoride on children only because insurance didn’t cover fluoride for adults. We took radiographs based on the frequency the insurance would allow rather than considering the patient’s caries risk. I did the best I could to help patients under these circumstances because I didn’t know any better at the time. Sound familiar? I didn’t have a mentor to ask questions or seek guidance.  Then changing family circumstances required me to seek out a new position where I discovered the benefits of mentorship.

Experiencing mentorship

The position I took was with a practice supported by a dental support organization. The practice had multiple hygienists and dentists in the office who were at varying stages of their careers. This dental support organization provided a comprehensive continuing education program that included everything from OSHA and radiation safety to medical emergency management and evidence-based treatment practices. Clinicians were encouraged to learn and seek out best practices that could help better serve patients. It was there that I met my first mentor. She was always available to answer my questions and challenge my assumptions. She taught me the value of asking, "Why?" When I had difficulties communicating with my team members, I could go to her and discuss how to manage the problem. Sometimes she helped me realize I was the one in the wrong. She helped me understand the importance of reading the research and coming to my own conclusions, and introduced me to experts who helped me expand my thinking. When it was time for me to move on to a new practice, she was my champion and encouraged me to take an  opportunity even though I was satisfied in my current position and reluctant to leave. It was this relationship that made me realize the importance of having solid mentors.

The benefits of mentorship

My experience is not exclusive. In most situations, mentors and mentees experience increased job satisfaction, are more engaged, and are less likely to leave their positions. Many of us emerge from our education excited and ready to change the world one patient at a time, only to realize we aren't sure how to function in the practice environment we have chosen. These environments have technologies that we may or may not have used in our training, such as different types of digital radiography, electronic dental records, air polishing, and lasers. They also may have different systems and organizational cultures than what we are familiar with. Without a mentor to help us navigate that environment, it can be challenging to fully utilize the technologies and adapt to the culture. The steep learning curve that can occur without mentoring can be frustrating and cause a hygienist to leave a practice because he or she feels unsupported. A mentor can help a mentee navigate the challenges he or she experiences to help create a more engaged team member. In turn, this relationship helps keep the mentor excited and engaged in his or her own role. 

The scenario described above is a traditional mentor-mentee relationship. It is that of more experienced mentor to a less experienced mentee, but this is not the only type of mentoring relationship that can be beneficial. Peer-to-peer mentoring allows colleagues to bounce ideas off each other, help troubleshoot problems, and share knowledge. It helps them create a community within their practices or organizations that can offer support from someone in similar circumstances. Another type of mentoring that we should be aware of is that of a more technically savvy person to a person who is less familiar with that technology. Many younger hygienists are digital natives. Computers and handheld devices have always been a part of their lives and they may adapt to new technologies more quickly than more experienced hygienists. 

Finding a mentor

Regardless of the mentoring relationship, it is important to note that mentors and mentees must choose each other. A practice or organization can facilitate a mentoring match but cannot force it. Mentoring relationships often fail because someone matched two people on paper and did not consider their compatibility.  A failed mentoring relationship can lead to mistrust and lack of respect, which is an environment that can create the opposite of what we are trying to achieve. A good mentoring relationship can last a lifetime and serves both the mentor and the mentee. With this in mind, how do we find a mentor? Those who work in a small group or DSO-supported practice may have an easier time than others. These organizations frequently support mentoring or have multiple clinicians in their offices that a new member of the practice team can look to as a mentor. For those who are the only hygienist in an office, the American Dental Hygienists’ Association (ADHA) is a great resource. The ADHA and its state constituents create community within our profession. The relationships we can create as an ADHA member can be invaluable in advancing our careers both clinically and professionally. 

I hold no regrets over the way my career started. What I regret is not having a mentor sooner! The support and encouragement we receive from mentors can help us advance our clinical skills and knowledge, improve our communication skills, and help us reach our personal and professional goals. While my goal is to continue learning and being mentored, I now find myself in a place where I can mentor others…and that is when the real fun begins!

Barbara Kreuger, RDH, MA, earned her Bachelor of Science in Dental Hygiene from the University of Minnesota and holds a Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership from St. Mary’s University of Minnesota.  She spent over 18 years as a clinical dental hygienist before moving to her current role as dental hygiene senior specialist for Pacific Dental Services®.  Barbara is currently serving as president of the Minnesota Dental Hygienists’ Association.