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Mentorship in dental hygiene

42 years in the dental industry: How this hygienist built her dream career

Feb. 21, 2024
Mentoring, constant learning, and being open to new ideas will get dental hygienists far in their careers. Take it from someone who loved every minute of her dental hygiene career.

I recently retired after 42 years in dentistry, and I’ve been looking back at my career and thinking about how much the industry has changed. From chairside hygiene to sales to hygiene leadership, I’ve had the opportunity to see many different sides of dentistry. Even after many years, I’m still excited by how much dentistry has evolved and the exciting innovations still to come, and I’m grateful to be able to share some of the key things I learned that helped me build my dream career.

Dentistry made incredible leaps

So many of the practices and technologies that seem standard now were once revolutionary. For example, the AIDS epidemic in 1983 changed everything for the practice of dentistry—we began to wear gloves and masks, and we devoted more time and attention to infection control.

In terms of technology, the early 1980s brought the advent of dental implants, which at the time were considered very experimental. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that implants became more widely integrated into regular dental care. Imaging has also advanced—x-rays went from analog to digital, allowing for quicker exams and more accurate diagnoses.

With better tools came more advanced treatment. As we learned more about oral health, periodontal disease garnered greater recognition as a systemic health risk and warranted more aggressive treatment. The introduction of lasers and light therapy allowed for better management of hard and soft tissue; in fact, in my opinion, laser therapy is the most exciting innovation in dentistry today because it’s so versatile. We can use laser technology to enhance healing through photobiomodulation, or even as an adjunct therapy to scaling and root planing to reduce the bacterial load. Light therapy may well be the next big innovation that changes the way hygienists treat our patients.

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Mentorship helped me cultivate my dream career

I’ve had the opportunity to work in many different areas of the dental industry, but one thing remains constant throughout: the importance of mentorship. I’ve had many mentors throughout my career, and all of them provided a different lesson for my professional development. They helped me cultivate my leadership, motivation, and sales skills; they helped me better understand complex topics, break them down, and be able to teach them to others; and they helped me keep an open mind and embrace new perspectives.

As I went from 15 years in chairside hygiene to pharmaceutical sales to hygiene leadership, I worked with my mentors to become the best version of myself, which is what led me to my dream career in the world of dental service organizations (DSOs). There were, and still are, many misconceptions about the DSO model.

I had the good fortune to work for Aspen Dental, a company that’s truly focused on breaking down barriers so that patients have access to the highest quality care using the latest technology, all at an affordable price. My dream career involved leading hygiene teams and the individual hygienists in the DSO space to practice at the top of their scope and be proud of the service they provided. By elevating the hygienists, all providers were motivated to deliver a higher quality of care.

I embraced lifelong learning

My top piece of advice to both new and established hygienists is to stay curious and be a lifelong learner. We tend to get stuck in our ways as we age, but if you can recognize your blind spots and stay open to new ideas and technology, you won’t get left behind.

Be proud of your education, who you are as a health-care professional, and the incredible service you provide. Continue to grow in your career by seeking mentors with expertise in many different areas. Be open to mentorship from any direction; some of my greatest mentors were years younger than me.

In turn, become a mentor yourself. You learn so much about your field and yourself when you mentor others, and mentorship helps you find the fun in what you do. There will certainly be ups and downs, but overcoming those challenges will make you better.

Together we are better

I’ve learned so much during my 42 years, but one of my biggest aha moments came when I realized that together, we are better. Dentistry is not meant to be practiced in silos, and a single private practice model is so limiting to professional growth. This is why I love the DSO model—I’ve had the amazing opportunity to work with some of the best and brightest in the profession.

Whether you’re embracing new technology, learning new techniques, accepting mentorship, or mentoring others, stay curious, work together, and remember why we entered the dental field in the first place: to provide the best possible care to as many patients as we can.

Jan LeBeau, RDH, is the recently retired vice president of hygiene support at Aspen Dental. She worked in the dental field for 42 years, cultivating her experience in business development, training, sales and marketing, and hygiene management.