January 30, 2021

When Should I Return to Work as a Dental Hygienist?

Some questions to ask yourself before you trade in your sweatpants for scrubs.

Cate Perino

Did your dental office just open? Are you wondering if you are comfortable with going back to work as a dental hygienist or dental assistant? Are you worried your scrubs won’t fit like they did 2 months of quarantine ago? You’re not alone. 

The world has been on lockdown for months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, offices are beginning to reopen, and professionals around the globe are asking themselves when is the right time to go back to work. Especially for dental staff, who are at a greater risk than others due to the level of patient interaction, opening the email announcing that your office is reopening for non essential procedures may bring you anything from joy to relief to fear. 

Initially, you should stay updated on your local news and understand the recent trend of active and recovered COVID-19 cases in your area. This decision is not one to be taken lightly, and many other factors should be considered before you grab your mask and head out the door. 

Here are some questions to ask yourself before returning to work:

1. Am I comfortable interacting with patients?

For many dental hygienists and assistants, seeing their patient’s smiling faces is what brings them into work every day. 

Today, priorities have shifted. Even though you may be worried about a patient in the process of treatment, or feel a sense of responsibility to help out your patients and staff, reflecting on your own level of comfort is crucial. Whether you are anxious about interacting closely with patients due to concern for your own health, or have family members or roommates that are at high risk, waiting to return to work is a personal decision. 

Make sure you are ready to tell your patients to open wide once again before heading into the office. 

2. Does my office have the proper PPE?

A large factor that will affect your level of comfort with returning to work is the proper personal protective equipment. Many offices are facing shortages of the required equipment, or not enough quantity to change them between each appointment, leaving their staff and patients more vulnerable.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) provides "Guidance for Dental Settings on their website. They provide guidelines for patient interactions, proper PPE, and disinfecting strategies. 

The ADA’s Advisory Task Force for Dental Recovery has also released a “Return to Work” Interim Toolkit to help practices limit exposure and spread. Both are updated regularly as the regulations and recommendations are frequently changing. 

Keep your office and staff accountable to follow these recommendations. Unfortunately, cleaning your patient’s teeth from six feet away isn’t very realistic, so make sure you have the proper equipment to help keep yourself, and your patient’s teeth, clean. 

3. Has my office implemented proper training and procedures

Even if your office has acquired all of the recommended PPE, training staff to wear, remove, and use the equipment properly is crucial. Many practices are also creating new safety protocols unique to their offices such as spread out scheduling, patient screening, and clear signage to direct patients. New precautions and standards should be clearly outlined and distributed by your office. 

The American Dental Hygienist Association (ADHA) also released an Interim Guidance on Returning to Work including a checklist to assess your office’s readiness. 

You need to ensure that the staff you will be working alongside are all trained to follow the same guidelines. Your cautious behavior could be easily undone by the next sloppy glove removal.

4. How many hours do I want to work under these new conditions?

Working the same hours that you did before COVID-19 may be more tolling under these new conditions. If you make your schedule request clear to your office, hopefully they can be receptive and adjust your hours accordingly. If your office cannot offer you the hours that you are comfortable with, there are other options available to ease your way into work, and still make an income.

Many offices will likely have limited staff with an inconsistent amount of patients in upcoming months, and seek temporary hires. You can search for part time or temporary shifts at dental offices when you are ready to either replace your previous job, or supplement more work when you do return. Easing your way back into work at different offices is an alternative option that will give you more control over your work schedule in a post COVID-19 world. Plus, you can see what type of office culture (and coffee supply) is your best fit.

5. What will my “new normal” be?

Accepting the fact that life will not be the same as when you left work is difficult. The dental industry will be greatly affected by a post COVID-19 society. Some dental professionals are considering a new career path due to the major changes that will take place in the interim, and the long term effects on the industry. 

It is important to take the time to ask yourself these questions and decide when you are ready to return to work. 

If you decide you’re not comfortable just yet, and want to search for other career options temporarily or permanently, that is up to you. 

If you do make the decision to return to work, and trade in your sweatpants for scrubs, know that we’re all figuring out this new normal together.

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