5 tips on becoming a dental hygienist

By: Liz Nies RDH, BS

Thinking of becoming a dental hygienist? I highly recommend it. Dental hygienists do so much more than clean teeth. What we now know is that the link between oral inflammation and systemic inflammation and disease is direct. Educating your patients on the benefits of a healthy mouth and healthy body can give them a better quality of life and, in some cases, save their lives.

I graduated from hygiene school in 1984 with my associate’s degree. I have been licensed in six states and taken the clinical boards in two states. For 20 years, I practiced traditional dental hygiene. However, when I moved to Idaho, I had the opportunity to create and implement an assisted hygiene position and loved it. In 2010, I started consulting while working chairside as a HygieneFusion consultant. In 2013, I moved to Colorado and secured a position as float hygienist and hygiene coach, and this eventually led to becoming a director of hygiene in 2015. I am currently working for Perio Protect as a DSO/Group practice liaison and team trainer. I have loved every minute of being a dental hygienist.

In hygiene school, you will learn that dental hygienists collect data and evaluate a patient’s medical history, vitals, radiographs, intra/extraoral photos, scans, oral cancer screenings, document dentition and restorations, evaluate periodontal status, create a treatment plan, scale teeth above and below the gumline, use lasers, give anesthetic, apply topicals, educate patients on homecare techniques, and provide a hygiene diagnosis that is then approved by the dentist.

5 Tips To Become a Dental Hygienist

Tip #1: Think about your long-term career goals

Dental hygiene is one of those life-learning careers. Before you pick a dental hygiene program, think about your long-term career goals. Now I know those goals can change, but you want to make sure you get the right degree. There are two-year degrees in applied science. This is a great way to have a career in a dental office, but many hygienists have found it difficult to get their college credits to transfer to complete their degree in the future. If you think you may want to eventually teach, getting an associate degree in dental hygiene may be a better choice. It is still a two-year degree, but your college credits will more easily transfer into a bachelor’s degree in the future. 

Tip #2: Work as a hygiene assistant first

Work in a dental office as a hygiene assistant. Your work with the hygienist will give you a firsthand view of what is done day in and day out. You will be a part of the dental team, allowing you to learn the importance of every position in a dental office. Most hygiene assistants will be taught many of the skills needed in hygiene school, so this experience helps you make an informed decision about your career choice.

Tip #3: Practice good communication

Good communication is vital. The dental team is built on trust that every team member is doing his or her part in patient care and documentation. Compassion, empathy, and kindness are valued. Being dependable is a must. People are making their hygiene appointments two to six months in advance. Plan your days off carefully so that you can take care of patients when they come in. The mouth is a very personal space and people don’t open up to just anyone so, if they are expecting to see you and you’re not there, the patients could get upset.

Tip #4: Continuing education requirements

Continued learning is not only a requirement in most states to renew your hygiene license, but it also keeps you from experiencing burnout. When you attend a continuing education course with other hygienists, it energizes you. It can reignite your passion by giving you a new skill or chance to work through an issue you may be having. Talking and sharing with other colleagues during my career allowed me to do more than just scale teeth. 

I learned about seminars and retreats to attend. I had the privilege of attending a retreat called “CareerFusion” created by Beth Thompson, Shirley Gutkowski, Debra Grant, and Patti DiGangi that changed the direction of my career. I received a scholarship to attend, and it was there that I met Tim Twigg and Fran Pangakis that led to me becoming a HygieneFusion coach. That is how networking works. I will always be a “fusionista!” It was the relationship that I made with the vendors that have allowed me to have a wonderful career, in and out of the operatory.

Tip #5: Become a part of your professional organization

Join your professional organization. Meeting regularly with other dental hygienists will allow you to stay on top of your profession by learning new things and honing your skills. Networking with like-minded professionals can be addicting and prevent burnout. 

My first taste of being a part of my local component in ADHA (American Dental Hygienists Association) was as the membership chair, then as component vice president and eventual president. I also was the president of New Jersey and Idaho state associations. While serving in these positions, my mentors helped me grow as a professional. Then I could serve as a mentor, and I realized I could add coaching to my clinical work.

Should You Become a Dental Hygienist?

Nothing comes easy. Hygiene school is hard. Finding the perfect position can be challenging. I recommend that you interview the office while they are interviewing you. You want to find a position where the philosophy of the practice matches your philosophy as a hygienist.

Remember, you are the patient’s advocate and the voice for your patients. The only way you can do that is to be working with a team that aligns with your beliefs and standards of patient care.

I would not change one thing about my journey. It is still a wonderful road 37 years later. Like I said in the beginning, I highly recommend it.

(Elizabeth) Liz Nies, RDH BS

Liz has been with Perio protect as the Group practice/ DSO liaison for three and half years bringing 34 plus years of clinical hygiene experience and some improvisational acting skills.  In 2019 she won the Dentistry got talent Vendor contest with her comical patient view presentation. Prior to joining Perio protect she was a Director of Clinical Hygiene at a DSO.  Liz has experience authoring articles in print and online in the US and Internationally. She shares her working knowledge of products, techniques, communication, team development, policies and procedures lecturing to the next generation of the dental profession. As a hygiene fusion coach Liz trained entire teams on interoffice communication as well as case presentation to patients. Liz’s enthusiasm and entertaining personality allow others to feel that they can practice the way they want to, and to make sure they can Liz will be there to mentor them along the way!

Photo by Evelina Zhu from Pexels

Continue Reading: Reasons Why To Become a Dental Hygienist