Negotiating the Curves

Nov. 1, 2004
The switch to a "paperless" office was nerve-racking, but the dental team faced the challenge of embracing technological changes.

by Cappy C. Snider, RDH

During the past few years I have learned how to negotiate a curve that has nothing to do with driving. I'm talking about the learning curve. It's the one that makes us anxious about what is just around the bend. We wonder how long it will take to become comfortable with changes.

Here's a warning: Getting through the curves and realizing what you've accomplished can be habit-forming.

My most recent challenge was when my practice decided to go "paperless." It had been discussed for some time, but became a reality when my employer outfitted each operatory with all the necessary equipment. The icing on the cake was the installation of digital imaging equipment.

The staff returned from the end-of-the-year holiday break knowing they would undergo intense training. My own computer expertise consisted only of sending and receiving emails, writing articles, and attempting to email them as files. I was nervous.

A company representative spent two full days training us on the new equipment. We were overwhelmed by the information relayed on the first day. Our notes were written in a way to remind us how to get from one screen to another. But we were wondering to ourselves how in the world this would ever become routine. The trainer assured us that with time and practice this would be a snap. I had my doubts. I already missed my paper chart, the entries in green denoting hygiene visits, the pocket with radiographs spilling out, and the medical history updates squeezed into a space that was much too small. This was how I had been doing things for 16 years. It was second nature. Why change?

The second day consisted of staged appointments, and we alternated with each other in role playing as the patients. We initially focused on the paperless charting aspect. Later in the day we were introduced to the digital imaging system.

For this aspect of the training we were on our own. The company representative had all the computer knowledge we could ever want, but had never worked in the clinical portion of a dental office. She could only share what she learned from the manual. After fumbling with the sensors, cords, and outlets, we practiced on each other. I was skeptical, wondering how the sensors would ever fit into a human mouth. It felt like biting on a Lego, and I knew that my patients were not going to be thrilled with this new technology.

We ended the second day simply hoping for the best. The next day real patients would be scheduled. Thankfully, we had a light schedule with extra time for each appointment. We were all nervous. It felt like the night before the state board exam! After seeking advice from other hygienists at [email protected], I had some valuable suggestions to share with my co-workers.

The big day arrived. We had to put into action all of the new information swimming around in our brains. Could I remember everything? I reassured myself that at least I remembered how to perform a prophylaxis. I wanted to find some measure of comfort. My ultrasonic unit was an old friend that day. My scalers were familiar, and even the noise from the saliva ejector was welcome in an operatory jammed with the latest in high technology.

I asked every patient to bear with me that day (actually, I still ask them) and allow me a little extra time. I explained all of the new things and showed them the digital sensors and prepared them for how the sensors might feel. The patient response was very positive. They were excited to see all the new equipment. After a few patients, the digital radiographs began to redeem themselves. Although we cringed to see someone who needed a full series of radiographs, we slowly accomplished the task. Patients were amazed to see images appear on the screen almost instantly. Any prior complaints were quickly forgotten.

My brain was oozing out of my ears at the end of the first day. Every move I made had to be thought out. The entire staff was mentally exhausted. The feeling made me recall the not-so-distant past. Three years earlier, a change of employers forced me to learn new things quickly. I remember going home after a day in the new practice longing to cruise through my routine, yet knowing that a career could not be sustained in this way. Somehow I made it through, and I was now facing a new "curve." The confidence I gained from that first transition would carry me through this one.

The staff is doing better every day. We are becoming comfortable with our keyboards and digital sensors. We love the speed of digital images and we don't miss the darkroom at all. The folks at technical support are on our speed-dial and they help by walking us through any mistakes.

In time, the system will become routine. We will wonder what we ever did before going paperless, but right now we are deep in the curve. I think I can see the road straightening out just ahead. Do I really want it to?

Successfully negotiating the learning curve can be habit-forming. There is something so gratifying about working hard, persevering, and reaping the rewards. Learning that coasting through one's career is not all it's cracked up to be has renewed my passion for dental hygiene.

I always loved the people I served (most of them anyway), but I lacked the opportunity to explore new treatment options or equipment. The dentist I now practice with loves innovation and jokes about being a technology junkie. My career has seen more changes in the last three years than in the previous 13. Although it's challenging, I'm grateful.

It's nice to be comfortable. Reassuring, restful and quiet, our seasons of comfort encompass our families, finances, and careers. Why would anyone want to rock the boat and shake up the serenity of comfort? Because it wakes us up, challenges our minds and bodies, and opens doors that take us beyond where we want to go. I urge you to explore a challenge you have wondered about. The success of the endeavor is secondary to the journey. Whether the outcome is positive or not, you will be richer for trying.

Cappy C. Snider, RDH, graduated from Tarrant County College in 1987. She has practiced continually for the past 15 years. Snider currently practices clinical dental hygiene with Dr. Brooke Porter of Azle Dental Care in Azle, Texas. She may be reached by email at [email protected].