What kind of hygienist are you? Random thoughts regarding different professional roles

Jan. 17, 2017
Angela Fuller, RDH, has explored several career paths as a dental hygienist and encourage new members of the profession to try different options.

By Angela M. Fuller, RDH, BA

Remember in school when we learned about the different career opportunities being a dental hygienist offered? If I remember correctly, there were a bunch of circles with topics that overlapped in to one central topic: the dental hygienist. The instructors may have brought in practicing hygienists to talk about their experiences in various roles.

The goal was to get your future career path laid out for when you graduated so you knew where to go to find a job, as well as where you fit in on the diagram. I’m sure that worked for some folks, but, if you are like me, I liked to try a little bit of everything to find right for me. I would like to share some of my real world experiences with you in hopes that if you are a commitment-phobe like me, you will see that it is OK to not really know what you want to do with your new degree and that it’s okay to try lots of different things until you find something you love.

The small practice

After I graduated from dental hygiene school, I started practicing clinically in a small, solo practice. It was a great learning opportunity as I realized how much I still needed to learn about periodontal diagnosis and treatment. I knew how to clean teeth and how to do a deep scaling, but the comprehensive periodontal treatment planning was not something that was clear upon exiting school.

I asked my friends from school if they had any guidelines in their new offices and came to realize that this was a big problem for many of us. We were just cleaning teeth and not really understanding how to charge out for the work we were doing. I did lots of “bloody prophys” in those days, because I didn’t know how to present periodontal therapy to my patients. I stayed at that practice for three years and took away many pearls.

I learned how to talk with my patients about their dental wants, needs, and goals, as well as how to create value and sell treatment for the dentist. I learned how to use a dental laser for periodontal therapy, and obtained an in-depth education about neuromuscular dentistry. I was a huge part of the team and realized: I wanted and needed more clinical experience.

Corporate dentistry

I had the opportunity to work in corporate dentistry at the suggestion of my mentor, but I had heard so many horror stories of dental hygienists being overworked and burned out with little time to create value for their dental services. I went for it and knew I would learn from the experience. I partnered with a hygiene assistant in an accelerated hygiene schedule, seeing on average 16 patients a day, and I loved it! I was finally able to focus on what I was trained to do—diagnose and treat periodontal disease.

The corporate setting had clear, concise parameters to follow, which was just what I was looking for to teach me how to diagnose periodontal disease, treat it correctly, and charge for it properly. Looking back, this was the best I have felt as a clinical hygienist.

I have also had the opportunity to try out a few other exciting avenues working with dental companies by providing feedback and consulting on product development and research. What an exciting world with so many fabulous people and great opportunities to pursue! I was attending trade shows, promoting products to other hygienists and dentists, sampling new products in my clinical practice to give feedback to the companies, and participating in clinical trials. Working in this type of setting (consulting for three well-known companies) was very rewarding, since I felt like I was making a difference in our profession and truly enjoyed the extensive travel.

Public health

Then life changed. Being that busy and away from home no longer fit my new circumstances. Public health found me and I went.

I am currently working at an FQHC (Federally Qualified Health Center) and I must say that it is different than anything I have done in my career as a dental hygienist so far. When I started, my peers warned me that working in public health was going to change me, that I would burn out and become unmotivated. I have found my past experience with learning how to communicate with patients about their oral health and how to create value for treatment has come in handy. I created a new reality! It has helped me to overcome the rumors that I wouldn’t be providing a lot of periodontal therapy.

I have taken charge of the fluoride varnish program and coordinate with 13 Head Start facilities across our region to provide dental screenings and varnish to children twice a year. We also track the children with decay in order to provide treatment by our pediatric dentist. We have a mobile dental unit and are starting to do outreach in the schools too, providing radiographs, prophys, and sealants to children in need.

I will say that working here has been the hardest year of my career (and I have another year to go). But when I am done, I will be debt-free from school loans and have two more years of experience working in a different practice setting. What could be better than that!

So what’s next for me? I’ve been thinking about pursuing a master’s degree to become a full-time faculty member, possibly a program director someday. I have always had a passion for teaching, and would be honored to pass along the knowledge and skills I have acquired through my various dental hygiene roles. I have a few more good years of scaling teeth before I am ready to hang up my loupes, retire my instruments, and trade them in for a desk and books again, and my future looks bright!

I have found that when you are ready to try something new and different, opportunities have a way of finding you; you just have to be willing and ready to step out of your comfort zone and take a chance to try it!

Angela M. Fuller, RDH, BA, is a full-time clinical hygienist and a new mom. Fuller graduated from Pueblo Community College in Colorado in 2010. She is currently vice president of the Missouri Dental Hygienists’ Association and has held many positions within the ADHA. Her favorite things include being the best mom she can be, cooking, exploring the great outdoors and enjoying all that life brings her way. Her passion for treating periodontal disease and educating patients about the oral systemic link has kept her focused and motivated on providing the best, cutting edge care possible. She can be reached at [email protected].

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