So you passed the boards and got a job as a dental hygienist. Now what?

Confused Woman

By Kimberly Herrmann, RDH
June 26, 2013

Congratulations – you’ve aced your interview and secured a dental hygiene position. You are starting with a fresh, clean slate, a sort of artist’s blank canvas in which you will begin to paint your chosen career.

The focus now is to make the all important shift that you are no longer working for grades; you are working for an employer. This requires a large shift of thinking from your school days.

I’ve heard a newly graduated hygienist say, “Well, I made straight A’s in school, and I made 100 on my boards. Obviously I know what I am doing!” Don’t assume that attitude, please. It’s fantastic if you were an excellent student. However, just understand that the structure is now totally different from your school days.

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Your primary concerns in your daily clinical practice are your patients and your employer. I can totally sympathize with how daunting it is to begin in a new practice because I have done it so much myself, with temping and moving around a bit.

There will be a period of adjustment for you, and for your new office as well. Be open, focused, punctual, and cooperative. Always act from a position of integrity, and things will work out for the best. It will take time to cultivate relationships – with your patients, your employer, and your co-workers. You will have plenty of opportunities to showcase your attributes and skills, day by day, and month by month.

Try not to stay too hung up on your school days and how things were done in school. Young hygienists sometimes cling rigidly to the procedures and protocol they were taught in school. However, as we previously discussed, you are now working for an employer. And I can assure you that he or she does not practice in a manner identical to your school experience.

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In my experience of working in many different dental offices, what I have discovered is that there are vastly different ways of practicing dentistry. Each office and dentist will have their own preferences, including how they expect their hygiene department to run. So, it’s not just because you are new that there is so much adjustment. It is really crazy to me how every dentist does things so differently.

Often times, the staff will have only worked for that dentist, and for a long time. They may only know his or her way of doing things. You will have to keep asking lots of questions about how they want things done. It will begin to feel ridiculous how many questions you are asking! But it will be necessary.

Again, communication is key here. You must ask questions about the procedures you are expected to perform and the way in which you should perform them. Listen carefully and take notes if you need to.

Of course you know how to perform dental hygiene duties – that’s what you learned in school. Just be very open to how your employer operates the hygiene department and the practice, and what the expectations are of you.

There are differences in the types of X-rays a dentist requires for his patients, as well as the frequency they are taken. Treatment of periodontal patients varies greatly, with some dentists very quick to refer patients to a periodontist, and others who like to keep the patients in their practice, which means you will be treating them. Other areas of diversity include charting, scheduling, oral hygiene instruction, and office cleaning.

Also, it’s a good idea to let your employer take the lead in conversation with his patients when he comes to check them after you have performed your procedures. He may or may not ask you what you found that day. It is the dentist’s practice, and the dentist’s patients. Follow his lead as to how much information you should provide when he comes in to do his exam. Also, you may explicitly ask him (but not in front of a patient, of course!).

You will find that it takes time for the team members to build trust in you and your work. Don’t be shy about conveying the importance you place on patient care and staying abreast of the latest and best treatment options.

Above all, try to maintain a positive attitude and truly put your heart into your work! You will be reaping the rewards and building a wonderful career for yourself.

Kimberly Herrmann, RDH has been a practicing dental hygiene clinician for 27 years. She is a past alternate delegate to the ADHA, past president of the Mississippi DHA, and past president-elect of Southern Nevada Dental Hygienists’ Association. She currently serves as an examiner with CITA and is a member of the National Association of Professional Women. You can find more hygiene advice from Kimberly in her new book, Becoming a Clinical Asset, written to inspire new hygienists, outline real solutions to everyday challenges, and provide support along the way.
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