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Assisted hygiene: Why it works, and how it’s changed my work life

Sept. 12, 2022
Working with the support of an assistant doesn’t mean accelerated or faster hygiene, explains this experienced RDH—rather, it's the "sweet spot between chaos and too much downtime."

Working in dentistry can feel like being a lone ranger some of the time. Chart prep, seat patients, deliver care, give instructions, make next appointment, turn over room, repeat, and repeat again. We’ve all been there—a patient in your chair, a waiting patient, and an extra patient walks in the door. Your team is taking care of patients and can’t come to your rescue. Wouldn’t it be great if there was someone else there to have your back?

On the flip side is the complete opposite scenario. Your schedule falls apart, and there’s no plan to recover it. That never feels great either. We’re here to care for patients, after all.

What if I told you that you could find that sweet spot between chaos and too much downtime? With assisted hygiene, you can!

Delivering more care

Working with the support of an assistant doesn’t mean accelerated or faster hygiene. Assisted hygiene is not about speed; it’s about delivering more care. Working with an assistant gives you the opportunity to see more patients. Much like a doctor delegates certain tasks to an assistant, you’re able to delegate certain tasks, like seating patients, recording blood pressure, turning over rooms, sterilizing, taking radiographs, and even polishing in some cases. This allows you to see more patients and perform more of the tasks that only you can do, such as assessing, administering anesthesia, scaling, and performing laser and periodontal therapy.

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Difficulties recruiting for hygiene, assistant roles

How to effectively collaborate with a hygiene assistant

Here's an example. Exams are a necessary but time-consuming step in the process of providing dental treatment. We call on our doctor for exams multiple times a day. In a traditional setting, we have a single operatory and if our doctor is held up with another patient, we wait, and wait. In an assisted model, your assistant can complete the exam with the doctor and provide the handoff to the business team, and you’re able to move along to your next patient. 

If we reflect back on why we pursued dentistry as a career, the majority of us wanted to serve or help people in some way. The hygiene shortage is real, and there aren’t enough hygienists to meet the needs of communities. Assisted hygiene will enable us to deliver care to more patients and also expand clinical opportunities for assistants. And an assistant makes your day not only more efficient, but more enjoyable as well. You’ll no longer be alone; you’ll have a partner to support you.

How an assistant helped my new career

When I think back to when I was a new hygienist, fresh out of school with no experience at all, I can't help but reflect on how far I have come. I was one of many in my class who had no previous dental experience before entering the dental hygiene program. While my program prepared me to pass boards, obtain a license, and assess and give care, there was something that it didn’t prepare me for: the real world. I was absolutely not equipped to juggle a full schedule and manage the day-to-day functions of a hygienist.

Most dental programs are structured this way. You receive a phenomenal education, but there isn’t time to gain the experience that you need to be confident in your new role in dentistry. It actually takes much longer to feel confident in your role than you expect. I wish someone would have shared this with me when I was a student! I chose my first dental job because I was supposed to have a mentor. I did have an idea that I needed some guidance. The practice that I was joining had a seasoned hygienist who was excited to bring on an additional hygienist. She was the only hygienist in the practice and couldn’t keep up with the patient flow. She was also about to go on maternity leave.

She and the dentist had planned for her to onboard me and get me ready to take over her schedule when she went on leave. We all know what often happens to the best laid plans—a few days in, she encountered some complications and had to stop working earlier than planned. My onboarding plan went out the window, or so I thought. I started running behind almost immediately. I was taking over the schedule of a seasoned and efficient hygienist, and I couldn’t keep up.

As if on cue, my dentist asked one of her assistants to help me out. She must have recognized my stress level or didn’t want to have a waiting room full of upset patients. It wasn’t perfect—there obviously wasn’t an extra assistant just looking for something to do. And as for my understanding my preferences and sharing those, I wasn’t ready for that either. But before I knew it, I was participating in huddles, prepping charts, giving handoffs, and sterilizing instruments. I didn’t learn this from a professor or a dentist; I learned this from my assistant. Technically, she wasn’t my assistant but I was able to practice with an assistant temporarily and it helped prepare me for more opportunities in the future and the real world.