Lillian J. Caperila, RDH, MEd, has more than 30 years’ experience in oral health care, where she has explored several roles, including certified dental assistant, clinical dental hygienist, periodontal co-therapist, and educator. She is currently manager and international presenter of professional continuing education for Premier Dental Products Co in Plymouth Meeting, Pa. Caperila is active in dental hygiene associations, serving at both the local and state levels with the American Dental Hygienists’ Association (ADHA). She is a past president of the Pennsylvania Dental Hygienists’ Association. In 2009, Caperila was inducted into her alma mater’s Hall of Fame at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, Pa, and, in 2010, she received the ADHA Irene Newman Award for Professional Achievement. She is also a member of Dimensions of Dental Hygiene’s Corporate Council.
What skills are necessary to move from clinical practice into working in industry?
I recommend that dental hygienists seek a broad educational background that includes research practices, business, technology, and communication, in addition to the core experience of clinical dental hygiene. If newly licensed dental hygienists continue their formal education immediately after graduation, I suggest they balance their coursework with a part-time clinical position to build confidence in their patient treatment skills. Active membership in professional organizations, such as ADHA and the National Dental Hygienists’ Association, is key to the success of all dental hygienists because they ensure our voice is heard at the regulatory table while offering opportunities for professional growth. No matter what direction you choose, your core dental hygiene education will remain a valuable asset in any role in the dental industry.
What do you think are the biggest challenges faced by new dental hygiene graduates?
As we’ve witnessed, the economy is creating tremendous obstacles for new graduates to find gainful employment and the compensation that usually accompanies a full-time position in health care. Additionally, the role of dental hygienists in the bigger picture of health care is changing quickly, which has forced us to rethink our preparation and skills.
I hope our new graduates will keep their prospects open for change and welcome all opportunities to become autonomous in leading prevention and health promotion. This will be our greatest legacy in oral health care. I believe the image of the “traditional” dental hygienist is quickly disappearing and will be replaced with a talented group of innovators who will lead us in the delivery of successful and cost-effective health care in diversified settings.
Describe your career progression.
I began my career as a certified dental assistant educated to deliver expanded function procedures. After 5 years in this role, I was encouraged to pursue a dental hygiene career and returned to school for my certification and licensure as a dental hygienist. My skills were honed in patient care, clinical instrumentation, and health promotion working in a periodontal practice for 28 years. With a desire to teach, I balanced my clinical practice with part-time studies to complete my bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene education at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia in the late 1980s. This provided me wonderful opportunities to teach at several institutions and interact with students on a daily basis while still working as a dental hygienist several hours a week.
In 1997, I entered a master’s degree program at Penn State University that diversified my skills in instructional design and corporate training. It was not my intention to leave my position as a teacher, but a master’s degree in education was essential to title promotion at the college. In 2000, I had the opportunity to interview for the position of manager of professional education at Premier Dental Products Co. I accepted the position, which encouraged me to continue acquiring skills that would not have been available had I remained in my initial role as a dental hygienist.
If you could go back to your dental hygiene graduation day, would you do anything different professionally?
I wish I had pursued any opportunity to observe or intern in alternative hygiene settings and/or careers. I have a great respect for dental hygienists who are employed in public health or outreach communities where they are of great value to the public. In addition, it would have been interesting to shadow dental hygienists who had already gained employment in corporate or sales positions. I am often asked how I arrived at my position, and I explain how my personal and professional networking skills provided the best opportunities. But not everyone may be as fortunate as I was, and I suggest that graduates take time to explore their options earlier wherever possible.