When experience and inexperience converge in the dental practice


‘Tis the season for dental school graduations, from both baccalaureate and postgraduate programs. Many new dentists will be entering the workforce once their state regulating body grants their licensure in order to practice dentistry. There are things that we all learn in school, and then there are things you learn only after you enter the real world of the profession that comes with experience.

As someone who’s been in and around the dental profession for almost 30 years, I want to share some learning moments colleagues learned the hard way, and some advice that has had the most positive impact on team’s overall success. I have had the opportunity to not only work with licensed team members that were dental assistants, dental hygienists, dental/advanced dental therapists, and dentists, but with unlicensed team members as well.

Practicing the “Golden Rule” and various forms of it

The most important piece of advice I have is applying the “Golden Rule” to every interaction, whether it be with team members or the patients you see. The Golden Rule is the principle of treating others as you would want to be treated. This is the positive, or directive form of the principle. “Do not treat others in ways that you would not like to be treated” is the negative, or prohibitive form of the principle. And lastly, “What you wish upon others you wish upon yourself” is the empathetic, or responsive form of the principle. Many of us are taught at an early age to respect our elders and those in positions of authority. Respect often needs to be earned. By applying the above various forms of the “Golden Rule,” you are off on the right track for great team and patient interactions and communication!

There may be other ways to approach a procedure

There is often more than one way to do things, and sometimes consistency is not a bad thing. One of my favorite quotes is by Marvin Minsky: “You don’t understand anything until you learn it more than one way.” I do believe that there are easier ways to do certain tasks, and when you’ve found that way, definitely share that with each other! Little tips and tricks of the trade (like I enjoy calling it) only comes with experience. Definitely share what you’ve learned to help others! But remember that it’s okay if they don’t follow your advice as there’s more than one way to do things!

Experienced team members (depending on the state and what is legally delegable) can show you tips for taking difficult radiographs, taking tough impressions, and dealing with challenging patients, just to name a few. Tips that have been learned through trial and error and not taught in any dental program!

Constructive criticism … learn to give and graciously receive

Dental programs provide little or no training in basic supervisory skills. Each is often left to their own devices when administering constructive criticism to a team member when it becomes necessary. Constructive criticism is essential to maintaining a professionalism in the dental practice and needs to be done in private, not in front of other team members and definitely in front of the patient! Ignoring a problem ultimately makes a situation worse and destroys any semblance of true teamwork the team has strived for. Everyone suffers, including the patients, when, in the naive assumption that problems can be truly swept under the rug, festering problems are ignored.

Receiving constructive feedback is a little more difficult than giving it for many dental professionals. We are all “perfectionists” in our minds, regardless of the role we play in the team. At the first sign of constructive criticism, before you say or do anything — stop. Try not to react at all (takes practice!)! You’ll have at least one second to stop your reaction, and while one second seems insignificant in real life, it’s plenty of time for your brain to process a situation. Avoid analyzing or questioning the individual giving the assessment and instead, just focus on understanding their comments and perspective by really listening to what is being said. The benefit of the doubt should be given here—as for many it’s difficult to give feedback to another person particularly if they supervise the team member. Recognize that the person giving you feedback may be nervous or may not express their ideas impeccably. Learn to grow from team member evaluations.

The power of the phrase “Thank you”

The words “thank you” are powerful generators of positivity. Thank you is the simplest and yet possibly one of the most powerful ways to convey gratitude, perhaps changing a negative moment into a positive one. It is not just effective when you are thanked, but equally effectual when you are giving thanks. Hearing the phrase conveys a sense of accomplishment, positive reinforcement, and of appreciation. Saying it expresses your gratitude for team members and things. We should more frequently and willingly share gratitude.

Be a mentor and role model

A role model is a person others can look up to in order to help determine appropriate behaviors. Role models can be either positive or negative. Positive role models offer a range of helpful or useful behaviors, while negative role models, on the other hand, offer examples of harmful or disruptive behaviors. The best mentors know that they are always modeling an idea of the future for their colleagues, providing a living example of what it means to be a responsible, ethical, involved, and well-adjusted dental professional. It is important to be a role model as the dental team will be looking at you for silent guidance. Learn to learn from each other, sharing ideas, passions, knowledge. It is this cohesiveness between team members that is often lacking in dental practices when respect is pushed by the wayside.

Mind, soul and body prevention – take cues from those who have been around the dental block a few times

One of the most important pieces of advice I can share with new colleagues is listen to your body, mind and soul. Your body will tell you when you are working too much or not sitting ergonomically to make it 40+ years in the field. Ask how others relax or stretch their tension away. And from the start – wear hearing protection faithfully as part of your daily PPE! Your family and friends (as well as your hearing) will thank you 10 years into your career!

Your mind will need stimulation by things other than dental subjects…find a hobby you enjoy to engross yourself when you need to shut off the world on dental for a few hours. Engage in networking in other topics that interest you. Your soul – when you find yourself no longer passionate about getting up in the morning for a great day at the office…readjust something in your professional life. There are lots of opportunities out there for personal and professional growth. Not sure where to start? Ask your experienced team member for ideas! We love to share!

Lastly, remember that each one of us is a unique individual with different outside responsibilities, upbringings, passion and drive. Learn from one another, and provide the needed encouragement for strengthening team and patient relationships. Share your knowledge, your expertise and passion, as well as absorbing what others can offer you in return. Then sit back and watch the dynamics thrive. Here’s to your continued professional success!

Natalie Kaweckyj, LDA, RF, CDA, CDPMA, COA, COMSA, CPFDA, CRFDA, MADAA, BA, is the past president of the American Dental Assistants Association and a thought leader based in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota.

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Note: “The Golden Rule” by katerha is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Natalie Kaweckyj

Natalie Kaweckyj

Natalie Kaweckyj, BA, LDA, CDA, RF, CDPMA, COA, COMSA, CPFDA, CRFDA, MADAA, is a senior moderator of the Dental Peeps Network and a past president of the ADAA.