Melissa A Obrotka, RDH, BBAOM, has more than 20 years of experience in the dental field, as her journey began in dental assisting while attending dental hygiene school. She practices as an implant care practitioner at the North Jersey Design Center for Implant and Cosmetic Dentistry in Denville, New Jersey, where the maintenance and health of patients with implants are her daily clinical objectives. Obrotka is a clinical adjunct professor at her alma mater, Bergen Community College in Paramus, New Jersey. She is the co-founder of RDH Innovations LLC and Dental Implants Uncovered with Shavonne Healy, RDH, BSDH. Obrotka is a member of the American Dental Hygienists’ Association (ADHA), New Jersey Dental Hygienists’ Association, and Association of Dental Implant Auxiliaries. A Hu-Friedy key opinion leader, she was nationally recognized in June 2016 with the Hu-Friedy/ADHA Master Clinician Award for her outstanding clinical expertise in relating interdependence of clinical practice and patient education for the improvement of patient compliance.
What drew you to the clinical practice of dental hygiene as a career?
I was exposed to dentistry at an early age. My mother was a dental assistant who transitioned to an office manager. When I was finishing high school, I began working in her office filing charts, cleaning operatories, and pouring models. I loved learning from the office team members about their role in patient care and how that worked within the office dynamic. I was encouraged by the practice’s dentists and dental hygienists to go to dental hygiene school. It was rewarding to learn something in school and then understand it clinically in the office.
Being a people person, I love to motivate and help people. When someone wants to make a change in his or her life, it can be challenging to find the right path. I love to help people find the steps to incite positive changes and integrate new habits into their lifestyles in an understanding and compassionate manner. Therefore, my motivational side coupled with my love of dentistry make being a dental hygienist a perfect fit.
You are an implant care practitioner. What sparked this interest and how did you develop expertise in this area?
In 2012, I started working in a prosthodontic practice. I was 13 years into my clinical career, loving patient care, education, and serving people, but I was ready for the next challenge. Prosthodontics showed me a level of dentistry that I had not seen before. I was exposed to implant dentistry early on in my career, but I had not experienced the advanced full-mouth implant rehabilitation cases that were now common in my daily schedule. I quickly realized that to better serve this patient population I had to increase my dental implant knowledge base. I fostered intraprofessional relationships within our dental implant community, as well as invested in additional education. Once I started learning more and was exposed to more peri-implant diseases, I began to think more critically about the long-term success of these cases. We need an educated team member who can aid in the detection, prevention, and intervention of peri-implant disease, and who better to do this than the dental hygienist? Dental hygienists are an integral member of the implant care team and we are being underutilized.
What do you find to be the most challenging aspects of clinical care?
Time! Our standards of care continue to increase every year; however, the time we have to work with our patients either stays the same or decreases. I have more to share with my patients than will fit into the traditional appointment time. I am blessed to work with a dentist who respects my professional judgement and treats me as a co-therapist. I schedule my appointment times according to patients’ individual needs. This allows me the time to perform comprehensive medical history interviews and provide adjunctive therapies and extensive patient education; ultimately, creating an individualized care plan. When we aren’t given enough time, mistakes are made, things get over looked, and a patient’s health may be put at risk. We all have a harried day in the office from time to time; however, I make a conscious choice not to compromise my integrity or patient care.
Please share about your co-founding RDH Innovations and its goals.
RDH Innovations came to fruition from a chance meeting when Shavonne Healy, RDH, BSDH, and I attended the same course at the American Dental Hygienists’ Association Annual Session in 2016. During the course, we learned of our shared passion for implant dentistry as well as other aspects of dentistry. The basis of RDH Innovations lies in our belief that dentistry will recognize the dental implant process of care as a separate entity from what is standard for natural teeth. Research demonstrates that the prevalence of peri-implant diseases is rising. Dental hygienists are often the first responders in the detection of these diseases. Furthermore, dental implant maintenance requires a clinician with advanced education in implant dentistry. RDH Innovations will expand the dental hygiene clinical setting into oral surgery through the implementation of a new dental hygiene workforce model: the implant care practitioner (ICP). The ICP is a dental hygienist who has furthered his or her knowledge of implant dentistry and understands not only the maintenance aspects but also the surgical and restorative components of dental implants.
Shavonne and I currently practice clinically as ICPs and we have met many others through our Facebook forum, “Dental Implants Uncovered Study Group.” We created this group as an avenue for dental hygienists to engage, collaborate, and ask questions, as well as to grow their dental implant knowledge base through studying cases together. We have many expert dental hygienist moderators active within our forum, as well as an oral surgeon, periodontist, prosthodontist, and general practitioner dental implant specialist to shed light onto the complex world of implant dentistry. These exceptional dentists support our mission and understand that the role of the ICP supports their surgical and restorative dental implant cases.
RDH Innovations is currently presenting “Dental Implant Basics: An Overview for Beginners” to enhance the dental implant education provided in dental hygiene schools. The number of dental implants being placed in the United States continues to grow and new clinicians are going to be treating patients with dental implants. RDH Innovations wants to support these new clinicians through education so they are better prepared to treat this exponentially growing patient population. The sky’s the limit for the future as we continue to expand our knowledge base and grow!
What advice would you give to newly graduated dental hygienists just entering the field?
Set goals—both long- and short-term—for yourself early on in your career and take small steps of action everyday toward those goals. Don’t be afraid to ask someone to mentor you. What is the worst thing he or she will say—no? That’s fine, just find someone else. You will find a colleague who wants to help you and our profession advance and grow. You are the next generation and we want you to be successful! Go to at least one conference per year to learn and network. Continue to be a part of your professional association. Get involved. Don’t ask what is the ADHA going to do for me. Rather, ask the ADHA, what you can do to help. Know that the first office you work in will probably not be your last. It takes time to find the right fit. Practice from your heart and cultivate relationships so that your time in the office will feel like spending time with friends. Practice with integrity. When you are in doubt, think to yourself, what did I learn about this in hygiene school? If you are ever put in an ethically questionable situation by an oral health professional, remember hygiene school, your boards, and how hard you worked to become a dental hygienist. Is it worth losing that all? Then listen to your inner voice, it won’t steer you wrong.
Ask lots of questions. Take note of how your dentist and other dental hygienists explain dentistry to your patients. What can you learn from them? Remember that many people are fearful of what we do—work hard to make them comfortable. Study communication skills, it will serve you well personally and professionally. Be transparent and educate your patients. Help them own their dental disease and then empower them to help you restore to them to health. When you make a mistake, and you will, don’t let it stop you from moving forward: learn, grow, and adjust. Be passionate and kind, work hard, help around the office, take out the trash, leave your ego at the door, take up yoga, and stretch often. Most importantly, NEVER stop learning!