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5 tips to navigate from new grad to private practice

Nov. 11, 2022
Congratulations! You graduated! Now you're searching for that perfect job. Kevin Lopez shares what he learned along the way in the hopes of making your experiences easier.

To the new graduates we now call colleagues, congratulations! You made it through the harrowing years of hygiene school, and we’re so excited to have you join our profession of preventive oral care. As you enter the next stage of your journey into private practice, here are some tips that can help you navigate the transition. 

It’s more than just getting a job 

You want to get THE job, and interviews are daunting. You want to make a good first impression, you’re scared you’ll say the wrong thing, and other nervous worries. But remember, interviews are as much about what you want as they are about what the employer wants. When going to an interview, take the opportunity to see if the practice is a fit for you and if it has what you want in a workplace. Career longevity is one of the goals when looking for an employer. That means you need to find a place where you’ll be happy to work at least 90% of the time; that is what will set you up for success. 

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When preparing for the interview, research the practice. See what the online office tour photos show about the workspace and prepare questions so you can learn more about the practice. But do not include financials right away. Those are for when you’re offered a position. During the interview you can determine if the team truly upholds the values they present. 

If you don’t land the job, don’t worry—the demand for dental hygienists is at an all-time high. While you’re looking for your best fit, practices also want the best fit for them. You will find your match! 

It’s all about finding balance  

Dentists don’t graduate dental school understanding the mechanisms of running a private practice. They’re faced with so many challenges as business owners that employees may not recognize or understand. This leads to the horror stories about practices with less-than-ideal working standards. If you recommend some changes in the practice to better serve patients, you may encounter these responses: “How much will it cost?” “We don’t have the budget.” Or the infamous, “That’s just how we do it here.” 

It can be jarring to join a practice that doesn’t have the protocols you’ve been trained to uphold. You may want to make suggestions that could overwhelm or turn off your team immediately. To successfully make recommendations that will ensure the highest level of patient care and your safety, be open minded and create a game plan.

For example, implement one protocol and observe its change for a period of time. Start with asking the doctor and team if they’ve ever considered the protocol and prepare evidence-based research that supports why it should be implemented. If that protocol works, then consider implementing another protocol. Be mindful that it's going to be a journey for a practice that has done things the same way for a long time. If you really think you’re going to be with the practice for the long haul, take things one step at a time.  

Fake it ‘til you make it 

No matter how long you’ve been in the profession, new patients will ask, “How long have you been doing this?” This used to intimidate me, but the question encouraged me to give myself credit for coming so far since the day I received my acceptance letter to hygiene school. I now answer with, “I’ve treated patients since 2018, and I joined this team in 2020.” Don’t forget—you treated patients during your clinic sessions in school. 

Having confidence as a new hygienist in private practice can be tricky and honestly, most of us start off faking it until we make it. You have your license, you passed all the requirements, and you know your stuff. Sometimes you can forget that, so I encourage you to speak things into existence, such as you ARE confident, you ARE an amazing clinician, and you DO deserve to be in this space. 

Stay organized and efficient with your time 

I get a lot of messages from new graduates asking how I stay on time when seeing patients for an hour. At first, I thought it was going to be hard transitioning from two- and three-hour appointments to one-hour appointments. It took me about a week to establish a routine and stay on time. 

Here’s what I realized was necessary. Have a pre-made chart template. I wrote out a SOAP note template that has every description you can think of, and I input that to the patient’s chart. During the doctor’s exam, I used that time to work on editing the SOAP so that it was accurate for the patient’s visit.

If the patient needs hygiene treatment (biofilm removal and scaling) that takes more than 20 to 25 minutes due to inflammation and disease, it’s not a true prophylaxis. We recognize risk factors and the associated recare frequency, so having these conversations with patients can be crucial to getting them healthy. This means less time scaling and more time assessing the stability of a patient’s overall health. 

Mentors want to be there for you 

Mentors are so important. Nurses graduate with an option to enter new grad programs and preceptorships. It is incredibly rare for dentistry to offer that, and new grads are thrown into the operatory with minimal guidance. I strongly believe we should have something like a preceptorship, but until then, we must take the initiative to find a mentor.

Most hygienists would love to share their experiences, and this helps you learn how to combine school-based knowledge with on-the-job training. I have several mentors who helped me establish my clinical skills and accelerate my career in ways I never thought possible.  

You are the next generation of health-care professionals that will lead the way and set the example for future hygiene practice. Do not hesitate to take on the challenges, ask for help, and think of ways that our field can continue to move forward. We’re all rooting for you!