I didn't start out intending to become a dental hygienist, but when I started college, I took a chance on the dental hygiene program and never looked back. Even through several role changes during my career, I've loved working in dental hygiene and the ability to provide solution-oriented patient care.
Although I had no early interest in dental hygiene as a young teenager, I visited the dental hygiene program for a "free cleaning." I learned so much during my visits to the hygiene school, and the student hygienist took the time to educate me about my dental health. The student's compassion and interest in me as a person led me two years later to become a hygiene student myself!
After receiving my Associate of Applied Science degree in dental hygiene, I practiced dental hygiene in private practices and enjoyed my work. I was involved with the student American Dental Hygienists' Association (ADHA) group while I was in school and continued my involvement following graduation -- first serving as president of the local hygiene association and, later, the state hygiene association.
I've always loved working in dental offices. Most of my patients and colleagues have felt like family. My favorite small dental office experience had only one dentist, one dental assistant, the office manager, and me. This required everyone to work together as a team to keep everything running smoothly.
Although we usually had a full schedule, I liked helping with dental assisting, sterilization, phone calls, etc. Being a good team member and helping coworkers when I had time showed the office staff members that I valued them as people, and my ability to be cross-trained allowed me to increase my value in the practice!
Five years after graduation, I was asked to teach a continuing education course. I had little to no teaching experience and initially had strong reservations, but it turned out to be a life-changing experience. I continued to practice dental hygiene but was now also teaching dental continuing education courses part time.
In spite of my crazy schedule, I wanted to continue my education, and 10 years following graduation from hygiene school, I received my bachelor's degree in dental hygiene from State University of New York at Buffalo. Obtaining my degree allowed me to expand my career goals by working in marketing and professional education for several dental manufacturers.
I am currently the director of education at the Boston Center for Dental Education, which offers hands-on continuing education courses to dental professionals. I also lecture at some national dental meetings and am a consultant to Philips Oral Healthcare.
Despite how my career has changed, I have always loved the connection I can build over time with patients. I love having the opportunity to educate and help them improve their oral health. Creating effective and positive relationships with your patients is easier if you remember one thing: Treat each patient where he or she is.
For some patients, it might be best for their oral health to start with basic brushing technique. For patients who are better brushers, I may spend my time with them discussing the need for interproximal cleaning and offering options that may work for them. I don't just tell every patient to brush and floss at every recall visit. Instead, it is important to provide patients with personalized assistance to achieve better oral hygiene.
Providing solution-oriented patient care is a key factor in developing relationships with patients -- after all, most time in the dental chair is spent with the dental hygienist! I do spend a few minutes of each patient visit chatting and catching up on my patients' big life events: This can help strengthen your relationship with your patients by showing your interest in them as people, and it can also provide useful information you may use in your personalization. For instance, when patients come into the office and want to whiten their teeth for an upcoming occasion, I often recommend an at-home whitening service, such as Philips Zoom delivered, to help brighten their smile.
Taking the time to get to know your patients and learn about what is going on in their lives can help improve their overall health in ways you may not expect. For example, my patient recently shared that she is about to become a first-time grandmother. After congratulating her, I was able to offer a couple of tips for her pregnant daughter whose gums are bleeding.
In another example, a patient confided in me that her arthritis was becoming a real problem. We talked about her painful, swollen hands that made it difficult for her to hold a toothbrush. With this decrease in manual dexterity, I recommended a power toothbrush to assist her in brushing.
If you have ever had the opportunity to reach out to patients beyond their dental hygiene needs, then you know how much this can mean to them. Giving yourself a moment to see the person behind the teeth allows you to make real connections.
Connie Kugel, RDH, has more than 20 years of clinical experience and 15 years of experience in dental marketing, education, and research. She is currently education director at the Boston Center for Dental Education. Connie is a past president of the Buffalo Dental Hygienists' Association and the New York Dental Hygienists' Association. She has presented programs at many national meetings, including the ADHA conference, RDH Under One Roof, the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry conference, and the Yankee Dental Congress.
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