I started volunteering at a local dental clinic as a way to help low income and uninsured children. (The ADA wrote an article about the Kids’ Community Dental Clinic in 2014.) Volunteering here for more than a year taught me a lot about how to advance my career in dentistry. Here are some of the key concepts I learned:
• The front-office mechanics can be challenging to understand. Especially if you go straight into practice after dental school, you may not have any experience with the business side of a practice. When I started working in the front office, I couldn’t understand how the paper and paperless records were kept. Every patient file had a number that coded for their paper health history, consent forms, treatment plan and treatment history. Initially it was cumbersome to make charts for new patients and check old charts for missing information. Over time it made me realize the importance of the details contained in the records, both for the patient and for us as oral health providers. Other duties of the front desk included scheduling patients, organizing recalls, welcoming and seating patients, preparing and mailing billing statements, filing insurance claim forms, protecting patient privacy and ordering lab work. The multitasking needed for all of these jobs was exhausting, but I learned how a front office can work effectively.
• The back-office mechanics are crucial. I realized how important it is to maintain the standard guidelines for sterilization and disinfection. It is equally important to adhere strictly to state laws established for safety. We followed universal precautions for sterilization and disinfection. These include guidelines for patient safety, instrument sterilization, operatory disinfection and personal protective equipment (PPE). For example, this clinic used various single-use supplies for improved infection control. These guidelines are meant to prevent the spread of infection and protect both patients and health care providers. Working in the back office taught me about the guidelines and use of certain materials to promote office safety.
• Chairside mechanics for assisting can be challenging. Four-handed dentistry is preferred for most clinical procedures. For a dentist to perform efficiently, the assistant needs to be one step ahead. Coordination of the hand and fingers with the eyes helps with speed and accuracy. For instance, when the dentist was doing a restoration, I would hold suction in one hand and pass instruments and materials with the other hand.
• Dental specialties play important roles in oral care. Specialties like endodontics, pediatrics and orthodontics are available to help treat complex oral health problems. They must work closely with each other to deliver the best treatment. I was most excited to observe a pediatric dentist. The behavior guidance techniques the dentist used helped make treating each child more effective. Specialists offer precision and insight for technique-sensitive procedures, helping the general dentist provide the best care possible.
• Outreach programs allow you to learn about local oral health needs and how community clinics are making positive impacts on oral health. Outreach programs may include conducting free screenings, offering oral health education, or raising awareness through health fairs. The Annual Give Kids a Smile event is another great example. (See past blog posts here, here and here.) I assisted with screening every week. I also taught oral health information through presentations and one-on-one interaction with children. It was fun, and it gave me a chance to learn about children’s oral habits.
• Building your network through volunteering can also grow your professional network. Establishing new connections with other students and dentists can provide you with skills to get into (and succeed in) dental school. Volunteering introduced me to other predental students, who later helped me understand the application process. I was able to connect with other students during joint outreach programs aimed at serving the community for oral health care needs. This experience provided me insight to what the admissions committee looks for in a candidate and also informed me of hurdles one might face in dental school. Balancing work and family life is not easy, but talking to other students going through the same thing helps. Even working with the dentist at the clinic provided me with helpful information. The dentist I shadowed asked me to take waxing or sculpting classes to improve my hand skills. This suggestion was an eye-opener, and I followed the advice to be better prepared for dental school.
We are lucky to be entering a career with so many opportunities for learning and service. I strongly encourage you to take advantage of these opportunities as a predental, and consider continuing as a dental student. You’ll learn skills and give back to your community, making you a more effective clinician in the future.
~ Shveta Duggal, predental