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Are you upcycling?

July 1, 2018
Upcycling can freshen your office and your outlook on your career. Here are a few creative and fun ideas for dental hygienists that don’t cost a lot (that’s the point of upcycling) that you can enjoy doing. What have you done to help upcycle the practice?
Have some fun with creative ideas for your career or operatory

By Judith M. Stein, RDH

Notice I didn’t ask if you recycled; I asked if you upcycle. The word upcycle may sound like a marketing ploy to make recycling sound more upscale, more avant-garde. Who knows? Maybe it is. Personally, I believe it’s more than that. On dictionary.com, upcycling is defined as “Processing of used goodsorwastematerialsoastoproducesomethingthatisoftenbetterthantheoriginal.”1 I love it. To produce something better than the original? Like Judy Stein 2.0? Don’t I wish.

Upcycling is more than just a fad for me. It truly feeds my sustainably-oriented soul. I like the personal applications of this concept too—turning an old coffee table into an upscale and personalized game board, or taking a broken clarinet and creating a one-of-a-kind table lamp. These fun and creative ideas led me to ponder upcycling applications in the world of dentistry. Why not? Many dental professionals have a very creative side. My hope is that sharing my short list of upcycling ideas may spark something in readers needed to “produce something better than the original.”

Upcycle your operatory’s bulletin board with scrapbook paper, colorful pictures and wooden letters from a local craft store. Keep this element fresh and upcycled by simply changing out the color of paper and updating dental educational information.

Upcycle your online presence

This is a must! If you’re not computer confident, then hire someone who is. Upcycling your online presence is critical. I cannot emphasize how important it is to be aware of your website’s search engineoptimization.2 SEO helps power potential patients to your website when they’re online searching for a new dental home. Upcycling this element of your practice will require a watchful eye, but it’s not impossible. It can be as simple as making sure there are certain key words on your website. Speaking of your website, keep it fresh, easy to navigate, and up to date. Also, make sure you monitor your social media presence.

Upcycle your brand, personal
or professional

I love to talk about branding. Some of you may recall an article I wrote on this subject called “Personalized branding” in the June 2013 issue of RDH magazine.3 Woven into this article was the awareness that your personal brand evolves. In fact, it needs to evolve. Your core values will probably stay the same, but how you express those values can change. Have you ever thought about your personal brand? I encourage you to figure out this information. It can be as simple as determining your favorite colors and shapes and what words define you. Roll that into a business card and use it as your résumé header. Choose office staff uniforms that reflect your brand. Have fun with this information. Keep your brand fresh and upcycled.

Tired of patient take-home items and educational materials looking cluttered and unorganized? Consider purchasing a credenza and stylish containers to display such items. Really have the upcycling touch? Transform an unused piece of furniture that could function the same as a store-bought credenza.

Reaching outward and upward

Ten years ago, I began visiting area preschools with the goal of never having to hear another child cry through a restorative appointment. I wanted to instill dental excitement, share home-care techniques, and make a connection with preschoolers and their parents through the literature I sent home. My first visits were very genuine but quite bland. I had very few visual aids, no games, and I did way too much talking. Upcycling this program did not occur overnight. I had to keep at it. Each year I would evaluate what part of my program worked and receive feedback from preschool teachers, and I eventually created something much better.

Today I’ve completely upcycled my outreach program and I’m having a blast! I’ve created a simple and interactive tooth game for children. I bring a stuffed animal designed with plastic teeth and a toothbrush to use as one of my visual aids. A coworker’s husband created a 12-inch wooden flosser as another fun visual aid.

The nutritional component of my program has been upcycled too. Ten years ago, I brought empty containers of unhealthy and healthy snacks for the children to sort out. Today I bring only actual examples of healthy foods. I no longer emphasize any unhealthy choices and I focus completely on the healthy. I’m very thankful that I kept an open mind for this upcycling to happen.

Upcycling instruments

Upcycling my instrument selection has been an interesting journey. If we look at the evolution of dental hygiene instruments we will see that, through the years, things have been modernized more than they’ve been upcycled. For example, ultrasonic instrumentation has been modernized with new technology, for which I’m very thankful. But in my opinion, hand instruments have had more of an upcycling flare in their progress.

For example, dental hygiene instrument manufacturers listened to hygienists who love their Gracys. Hygienists said sometimes they needed more length to the instrument shank. The manufacturers upcycled and this communication and research resulted in the Gracey Curette After Five instrument line. This is just one example of a synergy between manufacturers and consumers who didn’t throw out technology. They kept what worked, improved what did not work, and created something different than the original. Thankfully, we now have greater selections of instruments to meet our patients’ dental needs and our ergonomic specifications.

I encourage you to remain open to the possibility of trying something new and upcycled. Stay connected to your instrument manufacturers. Break out of your comfort zone because that’s where the magic happens.

From film to digital to 3D radiography

Think back to a time before digital x-rays, a time when you had to unwrap x-ray film in a darkroom, clip it on to a metal x-ray holder, and process the x-ray. Fixer, rinse, developer, final rinse, dry. The process was tedious, time consuming, and riddled with chemicals. I don’t even remember the number of uniforms I ruined when those x-ray chemicals splashed onto them.

Dentistry then made an upcycling leap to x-ray processing machines. These were helpful but still did not eliminate the chemical component of the x-ray processing routine. For me, the huge upcycling jump occurred when x-rays went digital. It was love at first sight for me. It was wonderful being able to take an x-ray and know within minutes whether or not I had to retake the film.

Without resting on our laurels, dentistry has pushed the envelope even more with cone beam volumetric tomography (3D).4 I’ve seen the images this machine can collect but I haven’t had the chance to work with this diagnostic equipment yet. From film to 3D, researchers took what worked, discarded what didn’t, and created something beautiful. Now I challenge researchers to continue with this upcycling process. On behalf of both practitioners and patients, we petition you to continue making the x-ray process safer and more precise for everyone.

Customer service

We should never stop upcycling customer service. Upcycling customer service must be a continuous, creative, thoughtful, and ongoing process in order for our businesses to succeed and flourish. Be excited about finding ways to upcycle your customer service efforts. Freshen up your waiting room. Place a simple, updated table of refreshments in the waiting area. Go above and beyond and make sure every patient is greeted in a timely and personable manner.

Send out cards to your young patients congratulating them on their achievements, or send cards of home-care encouragement. I love sending notes out to my elderly patients with birthday or get well wishes. Make sure every chair in your office is comfortable. If not, do what you need to do to make them comfortable. When there is conflict, make sure your patient is heard and make the necessary arrangements to resolve the challenge. Never tire of making amends. When you’re not sure about how to proceed, just keep doing the next right thing. Let customer service seep into every area of your dental practice and share it with every patient you serve.

Operatory upcycling

Have you ever thought about furniture shopping for your operatory? Well, I hadn’t, but thankfully my coworker advised me otherwise. She found the most useful and tasteful credenza to be used in our operatory space. We’ve placed different take-home products for our patients on this credenza. We’ve also placed a simple and tasteful corner chair next to it. The addition of this furniture in our operatory space was a huge upcycling accomplishment. I didn’t have this vision, but thankfully someone else did. Now patients love coming into our operatory. It’s not cluttered, and thanks to the placement of a small furniture cube under our corner chair, it’s very spacious. This effort was a game changer and a definite upcycling win-win.

Another one of our simple upcycling efforts was the placement of a bulletin board in our operatory. We purchased a framed corkboard from a craft store and added some colorful scrapbook paper that highlights different dental facts with a few simple embellishments. I recommend that you upcycle your creativity and let your workspace reflect your love of dental health.

Who likes to upcycle their closet space?

I wish I’d been born with a flair for organizing, but I wasn’t. I have to work at organization, but there are some simple upcycling ideas that you can make happen to improve the flow of your storage space and your routines. The first example that comes to mind is the use of binders. I love using binders to hold staff notes, operatory warranties, insurance code information, and patient dental handouts. It keeps everything in one location for easy access.

Another example of upcycling your storage space for dental home-care items such as toothbrushes, flossing supplies, and other take-home items is plastic containers. Use these containers for your supplies. Just add your dental products to the containers and label them. These containers will also make stacking easier and your storage closets will look incredible. You’ll know where things are and how much inventory you have. Try these simple ideas to upcycle your storage closets, and don’t forget to recycle any packaging materials.

Outdoor space

What about upcycling your outdoor space? You may not have a lot of influence on this area of your dental office, but don’t ignore what you can do. Look at your signage. How visible is your outdoor sign? Can it be upcycled by simply adding flowers or landscaping around it? Can you afford to take that sign to the next upcycling level of electronics?

Do you have any green space near your office? Why not upcycle that space with a picnic table? Place a unique bike rack to promote healthy lifestyles for your patients and team members. The outdoor space used to be the first glimpse a potential customer had of your office. Thanks to the internet, potential customers can now collect much more information about your practice with an online search. Your outdoor space should still be inviting. Nothing complicated, just make sure you don’t ignore this space. It truly can be a reflection of your dental practice, whether you like it or not.

So there you have it. A few of my thoughts and ideas. I would love to keep the conversation going. What are your upcycling visions? Your voice matters to me. I’m listening.

JUDITH M. STEIN, RDH, is a 1981 graduate of Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek, Mich. Judy has enjoyed a variety of professional opportunities in her hygiene career, is committed to lifelong learning, and is now employed in private practice. The author is an active volunteer in several professional, community, and faith organizations. She can be reached at .


1. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/upcycle

2. https://www.forbes.com/sites/miketempleman/2016/02/16/seo-has-evolved-to-search-experience-optimization/#6f368fc03f35

3. http://www.rdhmag.com/articles/print/volume-33/issue-6/features/personalized-branding.html

4. http://www.dentistryiq.com/articles/2010/07/cone-beam-imaging-is-radically-transforming-dentistry.html