There and back again

Sophie Lokes hygienistSophie Lokes talks with Dentistry about her journey to qualifying and practising as a hygienist on the back of the pandemic.

What’s your background in dentistry? 

Sophie Lokes (SL): My journey in dentistry is a little complicated – I joined The Gallery back in 2014 and worked there as a nurse until I left about four years later. 

But I didn’t get a new job: I went to train as a hygienist, and I got lucky in that when I graduated, the practice was looking for a new hygienist. So, I found myself coming back to where it all started! 

I’m working three days a week as a hygienist here. We’re a mixed practice though I mainly treat adults as we only see children on our NHS contract. Most of them have been coming to the practice for years. It feels like a second family in a lot of ways. They recognise everyone in the practice and we’re on a first-name basis with a lot of them. It’s a lovely environment to work in. 

How did it feel to come back to the practice? 

SL: The practice had joined Dentex in the meantime and in all honesty, I was a little apprehensive. It was privately owned prior to that. The principal, Robin Denville, opened the practice in the 80s and had run it for 30 years with his wife.

I was used to it being this small family-run business and the prospect of Dentex – this big company that owns a lot of practices – coming in and changing everything was a bit daunting. There was some apprehension at the prospect of things changing, but once we joined, Dentex actually didn’t change much. There was no reason to be worried at all! 

I came back to the practice in the middle of the pandemic, which was a bit nerve wracking. It’s scary enough being newly qualified and going in to a brand-new job. Doing it during COVID-19 made it even more challenging! The team have been great about welcoming me back though. I was able to come in a few weeks before I started and shadow people. When my first day came around, I felt much more prepared for it. 

I started off as a nurse and I came back as a hygienist, with more responsibility. Initially it was daunting, but after just a few months I felt so appreciated for what I was doing. COVID-19 has made life difficult for so many people. A lot of older hygienists are retiring or simply leaving the profession. So, to come in and feel thoroughly welcomed and appreciated quickly helped allay any fears. 

How did the pandemic affect the practice? 

SL: I think the first lockdown – where practices couldn’t open – was hardest. I joined a little while after that was over, but I think all that uncertainty was hard for everyone. 

Since then, we’ve essentially been open as usual, and that’s made things much easier. While we can’t see as many people as we’d like to because of the regulations, we’re really busy, which is great. 

I’m sure that a year ago there was the worry that perhaps we wouldn’t get back on our feet. However, there’s been such demand that our other hygienist is booked up for months in advance now. We’re getting a lot of new patients signing up as well

It’s nice to know that patients still want to come and see us. I think there are plenty of things to be hopeful about! 

What’s your take on Dentex now you’ve worked with the company for a little while? 

SL: The changeover happened really quietly – it was mostly behind the scenes. When Robin was owner and clinician, he was often left with quite a bit to juggle, but now there’s more structure and a bigger team behind us to deal with any problems should they crop up. It’s not that things were bad before; more that getting things done feels more efficient now. 

From a patient perspective I don’t think they have any idea that anything’s changed – we have the same faces, so to them it’s the same practice they’ve always known. 

Has life as a hygienist turned out the way you expected? 

SL: It’s varied, and I’m learning a lot every day, but it’s been a really positive change. 

I’ve taken over from a hygienist who was with the practice for about seven years. We have another hygienist, Diane, who’s been here since the 80s. She’s been treating generations of the same families, and pretty much has a cult following at this point!  

Watching her was part of the reason I wanted to become a hygienist – I got to see how much her patients love her. They would call up and say: ‘I only want to see Diane, I’m not seeing anyone else.’ And they’ll come religiously – sometimes more than twice a year. I can see how she’s gotten to know these patients. She’s seen them get married, and have children. It’s always struck me as being amazing to reach that point. 

I’m hoping that in years to come I can build up a following like that as well! 

How do you feel about the future? 

SL: I’m feeling really good about things. When I was studying at university, my plan was to finish my main degree and then do extra things like whitening or facial aesthetics. 

I haven’t been able to do much of that yet, because of the pandemic. Now things are changing I’m really looking forward to going out and adding some more strings to my bow. I’ll be able to offer a lot more for the practice as well as our patients if I can bring those skills in, and make our offering a little bit more comprehensive. 

It’s getting to the point where people are really cosmetically concerned, too. While they’re coming in for hygiene, they’re also thinking about all these extra things that they could get done. It’s only going to benefit them, as well as the business, for someone in-house to offer those treatments. 

When I think back to my interview as a dental nurse all those years ago, the interviewer asked me where I saw myself in five years. I said at the time I wanted to be a hygienist and it just amazes me that I’ve gone on to do it, so who knows what the next five years could hold?

This article first ran in Dentistry magazine. Read the latest issue of Dentistry magazine here.

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