Alternatives to clinical practice

Sept. 23, 2009
Clinical aspects are wonderful and needed, but you may not be completely satisfied by the clinical component. Expanding beyond your "comfort zone" into areas you have an interest in can open many doors, says author Ann-Marie DePalma.

By Ann-Marie C. DePalma, CDA, RDH, MEd, FAADH

I have been involved with the profession of dental hygiene for more than 25 years. As time has passed, I’ve enjoyed the many years of clinical practice with all its varying aspects. But I have always known that there was something else out there for me in my career. Even early in my clinical career, working in general practice, I felt the wanderlust. As soon as I graduated with my associate degree, I knew I needed to further my education. So I pursued my bachelor’s degree in the evenings while working clinically in general practice.

Upon completing my degree, I sought a change and moved from clinical to management of a dental practice. I worked with two general dentists, and I was the administrator for one of the doctors and learned the business end of the practice. I left the clinical aspects of dental hygiene behind, but eventually missed that component. I decided to go back to the clinical realm not only as a clinical hygienist, but as a surgical periodontal assistant, as well. It was a perfect combination — I saw two to four hygiene patients a day, and the rest of the day I worked alongside the periodontist. I learned all aspects of surgical assisting, from chairside assisting, to suture removal and pack changes, to implant therapies. My days were varied and challenging. I relished clinical practice.

But over time I knew I needed more. (My passion led to a big desire to learn technology as it developed.) I spent a large portion of my career in that office until the dentist retired, then I reinvented my hygiene practice. I saw a new opportunity with another periodontal practice as a time to grow. This time I focused more on the hygiene aspects and less on the assisting and administrative functions. As I combined aspects of the new practice with knowledge from the previous offices, I decided it was time to find another avenue for my expertise. A position became available as a dental hygiene instructor. As a condition of employment, I needed to enroll in a masters program. Thus a new phase of my career began.

As a wife and mother of two, getting back into school would be a challenge, but one I was willing to engage. I loved the educational components of hygiene as I experienced them as a continuing education speaker and writer. I also enjoyed educating patients about their oral health. With family and work, I knew the master’s degree would need to be done via the Internet — I couldn’t commit to attending classes regularly. Luckily I found a program that was affordable and fit my hectic schedule. I worked as an instructor in the dental hygiene program and attended the masters program over the next three years. When I completed the degree, it was time to reinvent my hygiene career.
I knew that working clinically would not be the “be-all, end-all,” so I combined one day of clinical hygiene with positions in marketing, sales, and consulting. Moving from clinical into the sales and consulting aspect of dentistry was an adventure. Sales representatives and consultants need to be able to handle rejection, and must be knowledgeable and confident in the product or service they provide. I enjoyed the educational components of my positions, but the day-to-day uncertainties of consulting and sales were a bit unsettling for my lifestyle. I missed the stable environment of education. So I found a position back in education, as a program chair of a dental assisting program. Having a master’s degree and being both a hygienist and assistant was definitely an asset in landing the position. My career has come full circle.

So what does my story have to do with you as a member of ADIA? There are many aspects to dentistry that you may not have considered. You can see that there is more available in a career in dentistry than just clinical. Clinical aspects are wonderful and needed, but you may not be completely satisfied by the clinical component. Expanding beyond your “comfort zone” into areas you have an interest in can open many doors. Don’t be afraid to look beyond your operatory and seek alternatives. Sales, marketing, and consulting require persistence, an outgoing personality, and no fear of rejection. A passion and belief in your products or services is essential. Sales can be difficult at times, but also very rewarding. Initial salaries may not be as high as with a clinical position, but with benefits and sales incentives, one can often reach higher goals.

Do you have an idea for a product that you think would be great for dentistry? Many clinicians have taken ideas from problems they have encountered and invented new products. Wouldn’t it be great to have your name associated with a product? It’s a long process from concept to production, but can be very rewarding.

Do you have a passion for a subject? Writing or speaking about your passion is a great way to get the word out. Assistants, administrative staff, and hygienists all have aspects about their positions that others are not aware of. Many great topics are never discussed because the writer or speaker obsesses over every word, doesn’t think others want to know about the subject, or are afraid they aren’t “good enough.” Speakers and writers should look at everything as a possible opportunity to educate others on topics that inspire their passion. Be yourself in your writing and speaking and you will reach heights you never dreamed imaginable.

Formal education programs offer the chance to share your knowledge in clinical practice with a new generation of dental professionals. Educational institutions do require faculty members to possess an advanced degree. In today’s digital world, obtaining a higher educational degree is only a mouse click away. Sitting in class after a long day at the office is no longer the only way to advance your career. All aspects of dentistry are experiencing a shortage of educators to share their knowledge. If education is your passion and you do not have a degree, don’t let that stop you from investigating the opportunities in education. Many institutions will employ a new faculty member as long as the person is enrolled in an advanced degree program (with a reasonable expectation of completing a degree as condition of employment). There are no more excuses.

As I present continuing education programs and write articles, many dental professionals ask me how they can grow beyond the clinical realm. Alternatives to clinical practice are as broad as your imagination and willingness to explore. Don’t be afraid to look beyond your operatory. Decide your passions and interests and the sky is the limit. You are the master of your career; don’t sit on the sidelines and complain about your situation. Only you can make it happen, so JUST DO IT! As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “What we must decide is perhaps how we are valuable, rather than how valuable we are.” How are you valuable to the dental profession beyond the clinical realm?

If you are interested in learning more about alternatives, please feel free to contact me at [email protected].