The trials and tribulations of returning to practice after COVID-19

dental hygienist back to work after COVID-19With many in dentistry back in the practice, Amber Ojak explains how the COVID-19 experience has changed the way hygienists and therapists treat patients.

I can honestly say, it feels like we never had six months off. Yet I have never been happier to return to my profession.

Even though it was a very productive use of the months when I was not in practice, I could not stop thinking about my patients. Especially those who were at the beginning, or midway through their periodontal treatment.

I will admit the first few days before I returned, I did feel a little bit anxious. I knew our dental world had changed quite dramatically. How would I cope with the extra PPE? What were patients’ attitudes going to be? How would I manage with the limitations on what we can do?

Mentally it was quite a lot to comprehend and for sure, it still is.

Welcome back after COVID-19

I was very pleasantly surprised that most of my patients’ oral health conditions had either improved or remained stable. This was due to them not wanting to get any dental problems without the ability to receive help.

Many have told me stories about how they have had the time to use floss and interdental aids. And how they are developing better routines than they ever had before!

I was also glad to see, how happy patients were to see me, and my colleagues. Usually I am no stranger, to them telling me: ‘I hate this part’. Or ‘I don’t like hygiene appointments – no offence’.

Having patients coming to see me and saying things such as: ‘I am so glad to see you’ or ‘I have never appreciated the dentist so much in my life’ has been a very uplifting response.

Maybe having the time off has bought about a change in patients’ attitudes for the better. Even though it has been less than ideal.

I have also found that most patients have been very sympathetic towards our profession. With many telling me they have read about our trials and tribulations, and how it must have been hard for us.

It has been nice to just have open conversations with these patients. To let them know how difficult it really has been for many of us. Despite what some news articles have reported.

Is our best good enough?

The biggest struggle I have found about returning to work are the limitations in what I can and cannot do.

I work between two practices, and at one of them I have returned to use mostly hand scaling. With which I have no problem with at all.

In fact, one patient commented how my hand scaling is now a ‘super scale’. And I really do feel more confident due to the practise I am receiving.

However, some patients’ periodontal conditions have deteriorated by the time they have come in for an appointment. It is so disheartening to not just pick up an ultrasonic scaler straight away to help them.

I was able to discuss further treatment options with the patients. But the delays in treatment after factoring in fallow times and PPE is rather frustrating.

Patients are very understanding, which is lovely. But as a dental professional who wants to always do my best for the patient, it has upset me quite a bit.

I know this hopefully will not be forever. But it just makes things a lot harder than they need to be.

All we can do is our best, but sometimes with the current restrictions I do not feel like that is good enough.


Physical issues are another obstacle I have come across during my return to work.

As I commence with mostly hand scaling, the pain I get in my fingers, wrist and arm has sometimes been excruciating.

I have come home some nights to put frozen peas on them, as well as taking pain killers. But luckily exercising these joints has eased the pain over time.

Using a mix of the USS and hand instruments is taking the strain off my right arm, which is promising.

Another physical issue is ‘maskacne’, which is an outbreak in spots and dry skin due to constantly wearing a face mask. I have suffered with this since starting to use FFP3 masks.

The FFP3 masks have taken a lot of time to adjust to. Especially with my breathing and how tight they are on my face.

It is quite difficult to focus on your job whilst you have something so tightly clamped onto your face, like an octopus.

This is the first time I have experienced rashes, small red spots, normal spots and dry skin around my chin and neck in particular.

At first, this made me quite self-conscious. After trying every remedy, nothing seemed to work. But speaking to other colleagues over social media really helped.

Many of us have experienced this issue from the masks, and remedies my colleagues have been trying have really helped.

The new normal

Overall, the experience has been very interesting. I do believe we are now in the ‘new normal’ for a while longer.

The PPE is hard going, and we have limitations, but the patients do feel extremely safe in our environment. Many comment on safe they feel coming in to see me.

I know we have a long way to go with COVID-19. But the ability to treat our patients again has been one of the best things to happen this year.

We are a very resilient profession. I still believe many positives will come out of this. For dental hygienists and dental therapists in particular.

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