Beyond Cleaning Teeth: The Clinical Skills Dental Hygienists Learn In Training

 

Stainless steel scalers. Tiny mirrors. Floss. When you think of the tools of the trade, it’s clear dental hygiene is, literally, a hands-on career. While you may associate a dental hygienist most often with your regularly scheduled teeth cleaning appointment, when these professionals complete their clinical training programs, they leave equipped with an entire range of other technical and interpersonal skills.  

Communication Skills for Dental Hygienists

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Dental hygienists work closely with patients, so establishing trust and rapport is important. Good communication contributes to those positive relationships, and students can develop those interpersonal skills during training in a number of ways. 

Tiffany Douglas, dental hygiene program director at Colorado Northwestern Community College, says patient education, such as discussing home care techniques, is a vital component of the program’s training curriculum. 

“The interaction between hygienist and patient is first discussed in class, followed by classroom demonstrations. Students then practice interacting with one another in a clinical setting, she explains. “Soon, they are interacting with patients under the supervision of an instructor.”

She adds that, in order to foster a good patient relationship, clinic hours are designed to allow students adequate time to discuss their patients’ specific needs. 

Learning to work with patients of all ages and backgrounds in dental hygiene school prepares students for the diverse population and age demographics they’ll encounter in the real world of patient care. Douglas says the clinical experience at CNCC provides first-hand experience with patients of all kinds, while at the same time also providing a valuable service to the local community. 

“We have the privilege of school-aged children visiting our clinic twice a week for 10 weeks,” she says. “This provides the students with an excellent beginning to their clinical career.” And it provides these children with much-needed dental health care. 

During their second year, CNCC dental hygiene students provide dental care to minimum-security inmates during weekly clinics. “This offers a wide range of oral health and unique dental hygiene situations for the students to learn,” says Douglas. 

Communication is also pivotal in a collaborative environment like a dental practice. CNCC’s dental clinical training offers an outside-the-classroom experience to foster important teamwork skills. At CNCC, it’s an experience you wouldn’t normally associate with a dental hygiene program — a ropes challenge course. It’s yet another benefit of attending an outdoorsy college.

“We believe in fun outside of the classroom,” Douglas explains. “We also visit the national park for a team-building hike or to enjoy a day at the lake.” 

Clinical Skills for Dental Hygienists

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The role of a hygienist goes beyond the all-important teeth cleaning. While in dental hygienist school, students prepare to perform a variety of hands-on tasks such as taking vitals, performing oral cancer screenings, and taking x-rays. Advances in technology mean that the dental hygiene curriculum also needs to keep pace with a changing profession. For instance, CNCC’s program requires students to learn how to take both traditional film x-rays and digital x-rays, as well as  how to operate oral cameras. 

“As technology continues to advance, we feel it is important for our students to be educated with the most current products,” she says. “We have five digital intraoral cameras the students use regularly to show patients what they are not able to see in their own mouths.”

Students at CNCC also have access to a laser certification course, adding another clinical skill to their toolbox. Lasers are used in dentistry for a variety of tasks, including removing decay from teeth, bacteria from gums, or lesions in the mouth. Lasers are also used in teeth-whitening procedures. 

Douglas says CNCC’s dental hygiene program also covers advanced cleaning and care procedures, such as air polishing, ultrasonic cleaning, and local antibiotic placement (to help treat gum disease). 

Adding More Skills to the Dental Hygiene Focus

Recording patient data is crucial to the dental care process. Douglas says at CNCC, like at most clinics and practices today, records are digital. “We train students to use dental software for record-keeping, x-rays and dental charting,” she explains. 

Dental hygiene plays an important role in overall health. So, aside from offering homecare instructions or giving general information about proper dental care, hygienists are also trained to offer more specialized patient education, such as nutrition or smoking cessation counseling.   

Making an Impact on Patient Health and Well-Being

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Dental hygienists are important members of a health care team and they graduate from their training programs armed with a range of technical, communication, and clinical skills. In practice, these skills make a difference in patients’ lives, and this makes for a rewarding career. 

“As you reach out and touch the lives of your patients and bring them greater happiness and less pain and embarrassment of their teeth,  you grow as a person,” says Douglas. “There will continually be a demand for caring, hardworking individuals who have a desire to help others.”

To learn more about how the dental hygiene program at Colorado Northwestern Community College can equip you with the clinical skills you need to launch your career in the field, visit our dental hygiene program page.

Published January 19th, 2021