An expert on good oral hygiene, Julie Spaans works as a dental hygienist in a family practice in Lowell, Mich. After 22 years in the field, Ms. Spaans has come to learn the career is about more than simply helping others keep their teeth clean. Career Colleges recently interviewed Ms. Spanns about why she loves her job, the unexpected connections she has made with her patients, and to discuss the day-to-day responsibilities of her position.
Q. What made you want to become a dental hygienist?
A. I had the idea of doing something to help people. I was originally going into nursing, but I got a little too attached [to patients]. I sought out dental hygiene as an alternative health profession.
Q. What is a typical workday like for you?
A. We typically start seeing patients at 8 in the morning, and see an average of eight to 12 patients a day. Procedures vary from general cleanings and periodontal scaling, which is more in-depth [cleaning], to working on children and providing oral hygiene education.
Q. What training did you receive before becoming a dental hygienist?
A. I went to Grand Rapids Community College for three years - one year of general education and then two years of dental hygiene. After college, I received board certification.
Q. Have you ever been on a working interview, where you get to show your hygienist skills by working with patients on a trial basis at an office? If so, please describe.
A. Yes, I have. I think it's a great thing to do.
In one office I had a working interview at, there were things I really didn't care for and I didn't think were safe, such as instruments with no tips. I didn't need the job there, so I didn't hesitate to mention to the doctor [my concerns]. Being an experienced dental hygienist, I know there are things you need to see and understand [before taking a job] and if it's not benefiting the patient, you have to ask yourself whether that's really a place you want to be.
It was very interesting, and I have subbed in a few offices too. I was able get a feel for each, and many offices work differently. Working interviews are a wonderful thing, and I would strongly encourage anyone to do a working interview.
Q. What is the most challenging part of your job?
A. I think [patient] compliance and establishing good compliance protocol is most challenging.
Q. How do you deal with patients who don't want to adhere to your guidelines and other difficult patients?
A. I personally deal with them in an understanding, calm and compassionate way. Empathy is huge.
Patients can be difficult for a number of reasons - they can be demanding, they might be scared to be there, or they may want to dictate their treatment plan. Regardless of the reason, you have to inform them that you are there for their health and then move ahead slowly but without compromising their care.
Q. What kind of hours do you work, and how are those scheduled? Also, how are weekends and holidays handled?
A. Hours are 8 to 5, usually part-time. I don't know how many full-time positions are out there, but they are available. I think dentists like to hire part-time hygienists, and that is one of the joys of the job.
I don't get any holidays, and it depends on the dentist if hygienists have to work on weekends. We currently work one weekend a month, although our dentist is weaning off that schedule. However, for the convenience of patients and the hygiene schedule, for now, we work one weekend a month during the school year.
Q. What are some benefits you enjoy at work?
A. In our particular practice, the dentist is wonderful. He trusts us to do our job and make the right decisions in the hygiene department. As a mom and a hygienist, the benefit of working part-time is great. That is one of the main reasons I chose dental hygiene because with a part-time position I can have a career and a family. That would be the number one thing that is beneficial in the career of dental hygiene.
Camaraderie and teamwork go along with that. Forming relationships is a really big benefit.
Q. How have you grown in your role from previous years?
A. This career absolutely evolves with experience and improved patient communication. It is almost like a psychologist type position when it comes to dealing with patients. Dental hygienists grow over time because they become more comfortable in their skills, and they can take continuing education courses to learn new things. It's definitely a continual growth, but it is very rewarding. If one patient out of twenty starts flossing every day and notices a difference [in his or her oral hygiene], that is rewarding.
Q. What kind of advancement might there be down the road from your current role?
A. There are continuing education classes and certifications in areas like local anesthesia that I could take. I don't know if they would help me advance or benefit me, but if I needed to find another job, they are definitely something that would look better on a resume.
But for advancements, short of going back to school for a bachelor's degree or a teaching degree, there are opportunities to join your local dental hygiene association. Then, there are opportunities to become officers and be involved in state and national level hygiene initiatives.
Q. What is one thing you like least about your job?
A. I would probably say conflict within the office between employees…working with women (laughs).
Q. What kinds of experiences stand out for you so far in your career?
A. That's a tough one to answer. One experience that really stands out is losing a patient. Of course not in the chair, but when a patient passes away. I have been to several visitations, and it hits very hard. That is one of the toughest things that I've experienced in my career. One of the good things [I've experienced] is when patients come back who are very satisfied with the care they've received. It is very gratifying as a hygienist and a dental team member.
Q. What do you wish you knew starting out in your dental hygiene career that you know now?
A. [I wish I knew] what a personal attachment you end up having with each patient and their family and history. They don't teach that, but hygienists really become part of their patient's life.
Q. What kind of advice would you give a new student going through a dental hygiene program?
A. Study and pay attention to everything they are doing. Students may think they are never going to use it [everything they've learned] but they will. If I were to do it over again, I would recommend going to offices and talking to different hygienists to get their advice. If a young person came to me and asked me what I would do differently, I think I would probably try to not be so bashful and get out there and talk to people. The more people they talk to, the more opportunity they have to let others know they are looking for a job.