High-flying hygiene

I’m living on station at RAF Cranwell [in Sleaford, Lincolnshire] so I’m in surgery within 10 minutes. I was an aircraft technician, but I’d been doing that for 15 years and was looking for something else. I saw on the ‘station notices’ that the RAF was opening up the dental
hygienist role to all trades and, when I checked if I had the equivalent qualifications, the
criteria fitted.

In 2005, I applied and went to interview in an Aldershot. It took two years of training with the Defence Dental Services (DDS) – which is a tri-services facility for the Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force – and I achieved my diploma as a dental hygienist which I can take with me should I ever leave the RAF.

I’d done my travelling with the forces, and I enjoyed the work, but I was looking for some autonomy and, at the same time, the RAF was downsizing.

I’m 41 next month. I joined up during the recession of the 1990s and it had always been at the back of my mind. I’ve been to the Falklands, the second Gulf War, Saudi Arabia and to Italy for the Bosnian civil war. I’ve also visited Australia, Brazil, Cyprus and Germany, to name but a few, so I’d done my fair share of travelling. I’d become an NVQ assessor for the guys working on the Harrier aircraft and, even though you’re working to a standard, you’ve also got to motivate them – and I enjoyed that in the same way that I enjoy, in a similar sense, motivating patients to adopt better oral hygiene initiatives.

Making a difference
I only treat soldiers, not their families, and on average I see eight a day, depending on what
treatment is required. Here, at Cranwell we have a lot of officers so it’s an older patient base and, therefore, more likely to be periodontal cases, which can involve longer appointments, regular reviews and extensive supportive therapy. I see army and navy personnel, too. I see my first patient at 8.15am but I’m in at 7.45am to look through notes and prepare. Preparation is a big thing. The dental centre, which has three dentists, is attached to a medical centre and the last patient leaves around 4.30pm. I think dental hygienists get more time to deal with patients in the armed forces than in the civilian world. Treatment is dependent upon a dentists’ referral, with whom I have an excellent working relationship. I discuss treatment options with the dentists and they have trust in my opinions and objectives. I feel like I’m making a difference. This is all brand new for me and I’m still on a learning curve.

All I’m wanting to do is the best for the patient. Generally, the middle-aged soldiers are a lot more motivated than the older ones who maybe haven’t seen a hygienist in their career. As things progress in dentistry, and prevention especially, they will take advice on board but generally they’re still not brushing correctly. I’m staggered by the numbers still using manual brushes – and they’re still not brushing long enough. You adapt to your surroundings as well… I never used to floss but you don’t think about it until you’ve got that education, and now the challenge is trying to get that across in layman’s terms to my patients.

I’m not intimidated by the high-ranking officers. I find it easy to communicate – it’s a huge part of the job – and people appreciate that at different levels. What I try to get across is ‘I’m here to give you the facts, I need to tell you this is potentially what will happen and, because I am a professional, I need to do the best I can and I can only do so much without your help.’

Between 12noon and 1.15pm, I go over to the mess for lunch. I dedicate a minimum of five days a year to CPD, I attend conferences – perio and hypnosis being topics I’ve recently covered. I’ll research anything that makes the job easier to treat patients and am particularly interested in anything regarding aggressive periodontis. I get the dental and dental hygienist magazines and do research on the internet. I do my training and then read up on it. Now I can understand it more.

A lot of a hygienist’s success is to do with how much support they receive from the dentists around them. Here, at the dental centre, the team is very supportive. I clear down and am in the mess by 5.30-6.00pm. Most evenings I go to the gym. I go the cinema and 10-pin bowling and I read, biographies and movie magazines mostly, but very often it’s clinical texts as I’ve still got a lot to learn.

There’s some pressure to go out drinking every night, but I try to avoid it in the week as I know it would affect my treatment. In some civilian practices, you get camaraderie and it’s the same in the forces. You get support for peer reviews and there’s a chain of command so everyone knows the next port of call if you have a problem. There’s also an annual clinical audit and a six-monthly mid-term assessment. There’s an average of three years spent in a post, so I have at least another two years here and then, potentially, I could be moved.

I have four years left with the RAF. I’m a corporal at the moment and it takes four years to become a sergeant, but I’m basically happy where I am. I never thought of being a dental hygienist to be honest – only when I saw the vacancy and thought ‘I could do that and I think I would be quite good at it as well’. I like the degree of autonomy this job allows and appreciate the opportunity the RAF has given me to take up a new career.

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