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Dental Hygiene: Senior Year, Week 1

A lot of people ask me what dental hygiene school is like and it's one of those questions that I just can't answer quickly. When I think of the program I'm in, the words that come to mind are challenging, rewarding, stressful, and busy; it is definitely one of the hardest things I've ever done.

This is the beginning of my dental hygiene posts; I'm hoping to put up weekly updates about what I'm learning at school, what we do all day, what the classes are like, what clinic is like... the whole nine yards! This will probably be TMI for a lot of you, but if you're curious about dental hygiene, keep reading. :)

Welcome to the world of dental hygiene students. Last year, as freshmen in the DHYG program at Hudson Valley, my class spent the first 7 weeks learning the fundamentals of dental hygiene. In week 8, we went "intra-oral" on other classmates, learning how to identify what cavities are, what restorations are and how to document them, etc. You can imagine how weird it is the first time you put your hand into a classmate's mouth! Pretty weird, really funny, and very interesting! By the last week of the semester, we were allowed to bring in our first "outside" patient: we could treat someone who wasn't a classmate. Fast forward to when classes started up after winter break: weeks 1 & 2 were orientation weeks that got the class up to speed on how to treat patients, the semester requirements, etc. Starting week 3, we began scheduling our patients and by the end of the semester we each had completed at least 8 patients. That doesn't sound like a lot, but I'll explain later why it takes so long to finish one patient's treatment. Fast forward again to last Monday, my classmates and I returned to school for another 2 weeks of orientation, prepping us to start back up with patient treatment in week 3!

The thing about orientation is this: it's fast-paced and overwhelming. A whole bunch of dates and deadlines are thrown out there, there's legal paperwork that has to be signed since we're health studies students, you're hearing for the first time what kind of patients you need to treat and they're more complicated than ever. Some of the struggles of hygiene school revolve around the fact that as students, we are responsible for scheduling our own patients and when we don't have a patient, our grade for the day reflects that. We're always struggling to find patients, so if any of you are interested in getting a low cost cleaning (we're talking $10 here...), let me know!!!

So, let's get to the question of why it takes so long to complete one patient. The first thing we do when our patients arrive at the clinic is document a thorough health history; many people don't understand this, but dental work can easily cause issues for a patient with heart problems, joint replacements, anxiety, etc., so a thorough health history enables us to (hopefully) prevent a medical emergency from happening during the appointment. Then, we complete what we call and "extra-oral exam" and an "intro-oral exam". During the EOE, we examine 13 muscles/glands/nodes on the head and neck and during the IOE, we examine 40 structures, all located in the mouth; during both exams we are looking for any signs of disease or anything atypical; that all has to be documented. Next, we probe the gum tissue around each tooth (keep in mind, you have 32 teeth and we take 6 measurements per tooth), documenting our findings. Then, we have you bite together so we can document the way your teeth come together in their natural bite; this requires taking a few measurements! After that, we do a thorough exam of your gum tissue and document the healthy and unhealthy areas. Next, we look at each tooth, identifying any restorations or "watch"areas (what we suspect to be cavities). Any watch area or restoration has to be classified by it's type and location and then documented. What we do next involves locating the calculus (tartar) on the teeth, documenting its type and location. Calculus can be seen on the teeth or it may be under the gum tissue, so we have to find it and remove it, wherever it is! Depending on the information we've gathered from all those assessments, we assign you a specific case & type, which basically states how healthy your oral cavity is. Once we have all this information, we create a personalized care plan for you that's meant to help you achieve and maintain your oral health. That care plan is written by the student, reviewed and signed off on by faculty (a hygienist), and then presented to the patient in an easy to understand way. This involves explaining what treatments we recommend you have based on our clinical findings. After, we go into oral self care, which often involves explaining what gingivitis is, how cavities form, what kind of tooth-brushing technique we recommend based on what your risks are, and a demonstration of the tooth-brushing method and the flossing method suggested for you. All this has to be done before we can even begin what you came for--- the cleaning!

So, the cleaning begins. We remove the calculus from the teeth/roots, de-plaque the mouth (dislodging bacteria that tends to "live" in the pocket between your gum tissue and your teeth), and from there we can apply sealants, topical fluoride, a coronal polish, etc.

Needless to say, all those assessments take quite a long time, so it's necessary to come for more than one appointment. Once graduated and working in private practice, those assessments aren't always done (at least to the same extent), so that's why your regular preventative appointment takes about 45 minutes! At the college, we give high-quality, thorough care and all of the treatment given by students is checked by faculty to ensure patient satisfaction and safety.

If you made it through all of that and are reading this, I'm impressed! Thanks for taking the time to read about what I study; it's a very challenging program, but it's also really rewarding!

Time for me to sign off and enjoy NOT thinking about school for a part of this holiday weekend :) Thanks for reading!


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