Confessions from a hygienist who dreaded the clinic: Tips for preparation

March 16, 2018
Julie Whiteley, RDH, is a hygienist who hated clinic while in dental hygiene school. Here's how she prepared for the dreaded exprience.

'Not everyone will be exactly like you. Take something
with you from each instructor and combine your
favorite pieces of information to make your own

I have been a clinical instructor for many years, and I can honestly say that I love my job and still enjoy working in practice. If we flash back to my life as a student, however, I dreaded clinic days. After all, hands-on learning combined with taking what we learn in class and being able to apply it in a “real” clinic environment is something new to so many. It can invoke feelings anxiety, stress, and lack of confidence. It may even have some wondering if they are making the best career choice for themselves. As I’ve worked with countless numbers of students over the years, I see many others who experience the same feelings about their clinic time.

Feelings such as:

  • I’m not sure I’m doing this right.
  • If I ask questions, will I get penalized?
  • What do I do if I get different answers from different instructors?
  • How can I meet the patient requirements, particularly if people miss their appointments?
  • Other students appear to be more skilled than I am.

For those of you who can relate, I am here to tell you that it’s normal, and you are not alone with those feelings. I’ve learned over years of teaching and practicing that there are some helpful strategies to help put things in to perspective.

What I now know to be true:

  • You are a student and that means you are learning. Anything worth doing well doesn’t come overnight. To that patient in the chair, you are the expert. Put on your game face and do your best. Be sure to review outside of clinic and practice your instrumentation skills on your dental model. Every opportunity you see a patient is an opportunity to learn and gain more experience. They don’t call it “practice” for nothing! These skills take time to learn and, if you’re doing it right, you will spend your career learning and improving.
  • Optimize your experiences. My rule of thumb is to always do what is in the best interest of the patient. It’s possible sometimes, however, to be so focused on completing the patient that you miss key opportunities for other services that may benefit the patient as part of a thorough, comprehensive treatment plan. For example, would your patient benefit from sealants? Are they interested in tooth whitening, or do they play contact sports without a mouth guard? Uses these opportunities to employ critical thinking skills. It’s a win for you and, more importantly, for the patient.
  • Plan your time. Break down what you plan to do for the session in scheduled blocks of time. Look for ways to be more efficient, such as preparing all you’ll need for an appointment ahead of time. For example, a review of the last medical history can give you a head start on looking up medications or familiarizing yourself with medical conditions that may impact treatment. You can review prior radiographs, charting, and treatment plan/notes, if available. You can ask questions ahead of time so that when you seat that patient, you feel more ready and confident to proceed. Having laminated reference sheets is another invaluable tool. I had sheets to help me remember the steps in the process of care. Additionally, I had sheets on everything from eruption patterns to how to place a sealant to what constitutes each type of furcation.
  • Balance independent learning with asking questions. You have a tremendous amount of resources at your fingertips. Your instructors do what they do because they love this profession, and they want you to be the best you can be. Come to your session prepared and willing to learn. Also, know how to use your other resources. Being able to be resourceful and independent will take you a long way beyond school.
  • As for those inconsistencies, you will learn with experience that there can be more than one correct answer. Students as well as instructors have different learning and communication styles. Some styles can be a better fit than others. This will hold true with your colleagues in practice as well. Not everyone will be exactly like you. Take something with you from each instructor and combine your favorite pieces of information to make your own “medley.” If you feel concerned or conflicted about something, professionally bring it to your instructor’s attention for further clarification. Also, remember we are trying to teach you critical thinking skills. Your life in practice will be filled with moments where you have to take what you are seeing and make well-informed decisions based upon it. This skill is like a muscle. You have to keep using it to build it.
  • Don’t view patient recruitment as if people are doing you a favor. You have something fantastic to offer. You are providing comprehensive care at a minimal cost (sometimes at no cost). It is a great opportunity! Don’t be afraid to reach beyond friends and family. Consider advertising in churches, town halls, or in places where you may find people who need assistance. Network with dental offices in your area. It’s possible they have patients who need but cannot afford periodontal therapy. A school setting is a great solution for them. Broaden your network at school, too. Fellow students can be far from home and may need dental care. Also, students are close by and a good network will provide you with someone to call in the case of a last minute opening.
  • We are often so hard on ourselves and think everyone else has it together. You aren’t alone in what you are feeling! It’s common. Your journey is your own. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else. You are a one-of-a-kind original. Also see your classmates as your friends and resources. You are all have different talents and learning from and with each other is such a wonderful resource.

You may not believe it now, but you will miss it when it’s over. I have many former students that return with fond memories that they never thought they’d have! It’s one of the reasons I have been teaching clinic for so many years. Plus, the bond you have with your classmates is something special that you will miss when it’s over.

With more practice, it gets so much better because you gain experience and confidence. In the meantime, take each day as an opportunity to learn and grow. Remember, nothing good happens inside of your comfort zone!

Julie Whiteley, BS, RDH, is both a registered dental hygienist and a certified human resources specialist. She holds degrees in business administration and dental hygiene, and has worked extensively in both fields. She is also on the faculty of Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences University. She bridges her knowledge and experience from business, clinical hygiene, and teaching to deliver information and programs that enhance dental practices.