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A dental hygiene student opens up about learning during a pandemic, the “real world,” and more
By Kevin Henry, IgniteDDS
Lauren Miller is finishing up her final few weeks as a dental hygiene student within the University of Oklahoma Dental Hygiene Program that is a part of the University’s College of Dentistry. She is someone I have known for her entire life, so I’ve watched her not only grow into an amazing young woman, but also into someone who has a passion for the dental industry and how she can make a difference in the lives of patients.
Lauren is roughly five months older than my daughter. They played together in our church’s nursery as babies and toddlers and graduated from high school together. To this day, they remain the best of friends. Now to see them both engaged and preparing for their careers (my daughter is in graduate school pursuing her doctor of physical therapy degree) makes me feel very old … but also very proud.
With her application to the Oklahoma Board of Dental Hygiene set for mid-March and a graduation date in May, Lauren will have completed her training during one of the strangest times in our nation’s history. Because of COVID-19, she also won’t be required to take any clinical boards.
Knowing Lauren as I have, I asked her recently if she’d share with Ignite’s audience about her journey into the world of dental hygiene. I also wanted to ask her what she knew about the industry, as well as her hopes for what lies ahead. Below is our conversation.
Q: So Lauren, why did you get into dental hygiene?
A: I know it sounds kind of weird, but I’ve always been very interested in the oral cavity. And, there’s the side that you know that, by growing up in the church, I always wanted to help people and do community service. I also wanted a job where I could have normal hours and a job that I could help people and serve people in the community. I just enjoy working with people so that drew me into dental hygiene.
Q: So what have been the biggest things you’ve learned about what you’re going to be doing that have surprised you?
A: I didn’t realize the in-depth nature of the hygiene appointment. I’ve learned that, when we get a patient’s health history that we have to know all their medications. We have to do research on their medications and the side effects and how they relate to dentistry and how important precautions are. I always knew the mouth is the gateway to the entire body. I guess I just didn’t realize what all we have to learn about the body just to work in the mouth.
Q: So what have you learned so far about working with assistants and dentists and being part of a team? What’s that been like for you?
A: I never worked in a dental office before I got in hygiene school, so I was actually pretty new in the whole dental practice environment. In the summer of 2020, I worked at Spring Dental (a DSO (dental service organization) based out of Oklahoma). That was really my first experience in a real dental office. I learned so much from the dental assistants who I worked with, because I was a dental hygiene assistant. Since I had never worked at a dental office before, there was so much that I wasn’t familiar with. The assistants were so helpful. They had a lot of experience and they were happy to show me things.
As far as working with a dentist, I learned more of what it will be like in the real world. When a dentist comes in for the exam, I’ve tried to learn what we’re supposed to do and say before and after he or she comes in to see the patient. I’ve had great experiences with both the dentist and assistant so far.
Q: You mentioned communication before and after the dentist comes in. What kind of learning curve was that for you and did you get comfortable with those talking points quickly?
A: I would say, at first, I was a little hesitant because I felt like I was just a student. I didn’t know at first what I could say or was qualified to say in my role. But, as far as going over oral hygiene, that’s something I’ve always been passionate about because when people are doing their at-home routines, that’s the foundation for their oral health. So many people don’t understand how to properly brush or floss, and that’s something I really want to try to change using the “tell, show, do” technique. You tell the patient, you show him or her, and then you have the patient do it for you. That’s been really important for me to learn.
Q: What’s it been like for you to learn dental hygiene during a pandemic?
A: It’s been so weird. In school, we always wear our PPE. About three-fourths of my first year of school was normal. When I came back in August, it was really instilled in us just how important infection control was. It was a big adjustment because of all of the new PPE we had to wear. It was hard enough just being nervous in school working with patients, but the pandemic made things a little tougher for sure. I’m thankful that my school continued to move through this pandemic and figure out how to do things the right way to keep us safe and our patients safe.
After this, I just have so much respect to the nurses and everybody else who is wearing PPE for 12-hour shifts or more. I can’t even imagine.
Q: What career advice have you been given by hygienists who are out in the “real world?”
A: A hygienist I worked with this summer, we became friends. She’s always given me a lot of advice and she’s helped me prepare for what it will really be like in the real world. She has told me how time management is so important. That’s probably the biggest piece of advice I’ve gotten from the hygienists that I’ve talked to during school. I know, in school, we have these long appointments for these patients, and that’s not what it is going to be like moving forward, so we have to adapt. I’ve learned I have to be efficient with my time.
Q: What are you most excited about when you’re working in a dental practice in the future?
A: I’m really excited to work with people every day and to work with multiple patients. I’m excited to work in the community and get to know my patients and their families. I’m excited to be able to see them every six months and really get to know them and what’s important to them. I’m also excited to take what I’ve learned and actually apply it.
Q: What are you hearing about the market for hygienists and your future job opportunities?
A: I’ve heard it’s a great market and there are so many job opportunities out there right now. The other day, my professor said she looked on a job board and there were over 200 jobs are available just in Oklahoma. I know that, coming out of the pandemic, it couldn’t be a better time to become a hygienist. There are some great opportunities out there and I’m excited to find them.