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Proper prep will make it easier to enter your new hygiene career.

Bridging the gap between theory and private practice for new dental hygiene graduates

May 21, 2024
You made it! Now, getting your career off to an exceptional start involves recognizing the upcoming challenges and setting up some strategies for success.

First and foremost, I extend my heartfelt congratulations to all you graduates embarking on the exciting journey of clinical hygiene. As dental hygienists, you now play a pivotal role in disease prevention, with the support of the ever-growing recognition of the link between oral health and overall well-being.

Entering the private dental practice realm after your education is an exciting step, but it comes with a unique set of challenges. You must understand some of the obstacles as you transition into the clinical setting. While it may seem overwhelming initially, with preparation, mentorship, and practice, you will overcome the challenges and thrive and evolve in this rewarding career.

Recognize the challenges

Time management: The shift from three- or four-hour appointment times in the academic setting to one hour or less in private practice is a significant challenge. Some schools provide structured private practice mode appointments to condition students, but not all. Mastering time management comes with practice. Consider avoiding offices with less than one hour for patient care appointments.

Seek support from your team while being a team player and helping when you can. Stay organized and audit your charts before the start of each day. Use prompt auto notes to speed documentation. Shadow your new workplace before you start to familiarize yourself with their daily flow. Finally, give yourself grace as you go through this transition; you’ll find your rhythm.

Navigate dental software: Dental offices use different software for recordkeeping. Dental software facilitates tasks such as recording periodontal charting, entering chart notes, capturing radiographs and intraoral photos, scheduling patients, submitting electronic insurance claims, handling billing and collections, sending electronic prescriptions, and communicating with patients.

As a new graduate, you may encounter new software, such as Dentrix, Eaglesoft, and Open Dental. Each system operates uniquely. Shadowing potential workplaces allows you to acquaint yourself with the office culture and software. There are videos online on each system, as well as a customer support line to schedule a training.

Understand CDT codes: While schools emphasize the science and skills of dental hygiene, there’s a tendency to overlook the importance of understanding Current Dental Terminology (CDT). Dental insurance often puts restrictions on providers and may opt to reject essential treatments. It’s important to have some knowledge about insurance policies and how to optimize patient benefits. However, the primary focus should be on educating patients about their health status and recommending treatments to achieve optimal oral health and well-being, regardless of insurance limitations.

As a new graduate, collaborate with your employer to codiagnose and assign the appropriate procedure code for the treatment. Also, explain the treatment to patients before starting it. There are many programs, workshops, and continuing education classes, including free ones, to help you better understand periodontal classification and coding. I encourage you to seek more information on this to become an efficient and vital member of the team.

Strategies for success

Continuing education and training: Registered dental hygienists are lifelong learners. Continue to prioritize your education to enhance your knowledge and adapt to new innovations and research. Educating yourself and sharpening your skills helps transform you into an indispensable asset for your team.

Mentorship programs: Engage with experienced dental hygienists for insights and guidance. Working independently in the operatory can lead to a feeling of isolation, making it essential to reach out to a supportive community for advice and to discuss challenges and wins. Mentors can be teachers, colleagues, employers, friends, or well-rounded hygienists on social media platforms.

Networking: Build a professional network to share experiences and learn from peers. This is valuable for your professional development.

As you embark on this journey, recognize and prepare for challenges so you can enter the field with confidence. With a commitment to continuous learning, mentorship, and networking, you can bridge the gap between theory and private practice to establish yourself as a successful hygienist. Take each day as an opportunity to evolve and find your rhythm in this rewarding profession.


Maryam Shamuel, RDH, has a strong focus on disease prevention and elevating patient care through the integration of innovative technologies. Maryam empowers her patients by educating them about the vital link between oral health and overall wellbeing. She derives immense satisfaction from mentoring fellow and aspiring hygienists, guiding them to excel clinically and advocate for themselves. She's committed to advancing her career and making a meaningful impact on the quality of patient care. Reach her at [email protected].