Find a Passion and Strive to Become an Expert

January 1, 2021
Jamie Collins, RDH-EA, BS

Jamie Collins, RDH, is a clinical practicing hygienist in Idaho and Washington states. She has been in the dental field for 20 years, both as an assistant and hygienist. With a passion for patient care, especially those with higher risk factors, she enjoys sharing the tips and tricks of dental profession through speaking and writing for multiple publications. In addition to clinical practice Collins is also an educator, has contributed to multiple textbooks, curriculum development and creation, and contributes as a key opinion leader with multiple companies.

With hard work, a good plan and a strong mentor, you can find the right path to make an impact in the dental industry.

Where do you turn when looking for accurate information? To an expert of course! The definition of an expert according to the Websters Dictionary is “one with the special skill or knowledge representing mastery of a particular subject”.

How does an individual become an expert in their field or particular subject? I reached out to individuals in very different aspects of the dental field to discuss their paths to success in becoming experts in a particular subject, and what advice they give to others.

Debbie Durako began her career in dental as a dental assistant and is now the director at StellaLife, an oral care company. She credits one of her first employers for helping inspire her to keep learning and involved the team in continuing education. Debbie fell in love with her experiences and continual learning which led her to strive for more in her career. She used that passion to create her own consulting business and dove into all aspects of sales, marketing and continual improvement.

Patti DiGangi had been a dental hygienist for many years and like many of us was working clinical and taking continuing education courses on a variety of subjects. Many years ago Patti had a variety of experiences that molded her into the dental coding expert she is today. Thirty years ago she was a part of a medical malpractice jury that prompted Patti to delve deeply into the details of accurate billing and recordkeeping. Another experience that led Patti to build her extraordinary career was while sitting in a CE course and listening to a speaker discuss dental coding. She felt she knew more about the subject and could present the topic in a more engaging way. Patti is the creator of Dental Codeology and Beyond Oral Health brands, and is recognized as one the leading experts in dental coding and billing.

Alice Lemkakeng, the CEO of SleepArchiTx, is unlike Debbie and Patti in that she did not begin her career in dental. She has worked with many different companies throughout her career and upon taking a position at SleepArchiTx jumped feet first into gaining all the knowledge necessary regarding dental sleep medicine. When asked how she quickly adapted to the new dental environment she states, “dive in, talk to everyone and start learning”.

Making of an Expert

One doesn’t become an expert in a subject just because they want to. It’s up to hard work and learning and time—one doesn’t become recognized as an expert overnight. When you decided to become a dental hygienist and expert in oral care prevention you didn’t just purchase a license to practice. You put in years of hard work and education learning and honing your craft. In fact, when Patti DiGangi set her sights on presenting her first CE course, it only had only ONE paying attendee, the rest were friends and family members she invited.

DiGangi and Durako have one thing in common, they both had the experience of working with a progressive and forward-thinking dental practice early on. Thinking to the future and how to continue to make an impact requires planning and time. You need to create a plan of action and a timeline to implement that plan. The point is like-minded professionals often will find each other in the industry and strive to move forward.

Creating a plan and putting into writing or a vision board what you hope to accomplish can be eye-opening. Establishing the steps and how to achieve your goals will make the steps to success less daunting. Set timelines for achieving your goals and brainstorm the possibilities. Don’t be afraid to dream big and shoot for the stars!

Find Your Passion

Any expert will tell you the most import element is to find your passion. DiGangi says when asked that she never saw herself as a dental coding expert, however it became an interest and it fulfilled a need in the dental industry. With a keen business plan she then turned her expertise into a line of Dental Codeology books and rebranded to Beyond Oral Health. Her business provides CE opportunities and a platform for hygienists to volunteer on the Dental Coding Consortium and to network and support one another. Lumkakeng adds, “focus on something you have a true interest and connection with. It will help you become successful with lots of work and time”.

I couldn’t agree more with the women interviewed. As a mother of an Autistic child my passion lies with the special needs community and I often write and present on the subject helping other dental professionals gain an understanding of the challenges within the special needs community. I have been asked to write or present on specific subjects in the past and find that if it is not an interest it can be more of a burden than a task.

SleepArchiTx’s Lumkakeng states she often has conversations with dental hygienists who are becoming the sleep medicine expert within their practices. In fact, many are becoming a real leader and subject matter expert within their practice becoming the go-to person for answers. Many practices choose to have the hygienist become a specialized resource on the team especially since the hygienist may the first line in screening patients.

Learn from Others

The saying “It takes a village to raise a child” can be relatable when it takes a network to establish an expert. Trying to navigate the waters completely on your own rather than learning from others will not only delay your plan, it may also prohibit you from learning from others. This is something I have learned personally. Many years ago I had a little dream of writing but wasn’t sure how to go about it. A chance meeting after a CE course presented by DiGangi led to trying something that made me vulnerable and trying something new, writing. Networking and learning from an expert helped me gain the confidence to put my voice out there for others to read and listen to. As a result, today my career has expanded into more than I could have imaged just 6 short years ago.

The human connection, even from the distances brought on by the pandemic, provides an opportunity to learn. Open your mind and make yourself vulnerable to learn from others—even the experts are continually learning. If there is one thing the pandemic has given us it is time to slow down and learn something new. Some dental offices specialize in implants and others in periodontal treatment. You may even become an expert in alternative treatment methods to be used clinically.The availability and opportunity to take a wide assortment of CE courses online offers the ability to explore new and exciting avenues.

“Do your research and learn from experts in that arena”, Durako states as one key to establishing yourself as the voice of a topic. Lumkakeng adds to the sentiment with “you need to know enough about a topic to be a credible expert.” You must learn from many experts and educators on a particular subject and pull bits and pieces together to create your own theories and ideas. It is important to not follow just one expert’s opinion, but to branch out and follow as many as possible. Find research and studies and delve deeply into the topics while compiling research and a plan. Many times we all have access to the same research thanks to the abilities of the internet, but how we interpret and express it varies among individuals.

The Importance of Networking

Network with like-minded professionals. The dental hygiene profession is often represented as a solo career and many of us feel we do and learn all on our own. In reality the experts within the dental field are often so passionate about their topics and are often happy to discuss and share with others.Many of the best-known experts are willing and open to guide you and in turn open doors and make introductions to other experts. 

For the time being we are not able to network at dental conferences in person like years past, however we can still connect through social media, video conferencing and email. Get involved in your local network and study clubs and stay up to date on the topics of conversation. You will meet others who share your passion.

Meet a mentor. As part of networking you may meet an expert who you just click with. They have achieved and succeeded in their profession. A mentor relationship has to be a good fit for both the mentee and mentor. The best mentors share the tips and tricks they learned on the way to success and are not afraid to challenge you, even if it makes you uncomfortable. Growth comes from being uncomfortable.

Hard Work and Perseverance

How long does it take to establish yourself as an expert? The muddy answer is: who knows! While we are an instant gratification society and would like to see it happen in weeks to months, it is generally not reality. We see the speaker in their great shoes prancing about the stage to lend their expertise and knowledge making it look flawless. The behind-the-scenes reveals there are many long nights of research, building and staring blankly at a computer screen trying to come up with the right words for a presentation or article. Consultants often find themselves looking for avenues to help practices improve processes and the bottom line. Dedicating the time behind the scenes and the effort is an ingredient in the recipe of success.

Learning, research and making connections likely will take a year or years to establish yourself as an expert. You must learn not only to establish your point of view and expertise, but you must also learn how to be a good listener and ask questions. Learn what your audience barriers may be and the best way to present your knowledge. If you experience hesitancy on your topic learn how to better present your information and practice your craft. It is of utmost importance to not only understand your topic, but to also be able to communicate well and be engaging. If you are proposing a change in the way procedures are done the process must be easy to implement.

Whether you are trying to establish yourself as an expert on a topic, create a company, or strive to bring something new to your office or the profession, it will take time. Expertise is in the eye of the beholder. You will need to learn and adapt to know what works and what can be different. The process that works for one expert or business may not be the best choice for another.

To invest or not to invest. Some choose to invest in a business coach or join a business networking group such as the Breakthrough to Excellence group founded by Jasmin Haley. Jasmin has established herself as a strong voice within the dental hygiene community and created a business in helping others grow their own business successfully. The choice to financially invest in help or grow at your own pace is deeply personal and dependent on many factors. There is no one right answer.

Enjoy the Journey

What we choose everyday is what we become, and becoming an expert is a lifelong journey. You must remember we all start as young and fresh-faced graduates and many had mentors along the journey, no matter what path we took in career and life. Lumkakeng may have said it best: “Think broadly about your topics. Don’t think of an expert in a narrow subject matter; it may be deep and broad”.

DiGangi, my mentor, will often tell me when we talk about a struggle or when I have questions, “all you have to do is ask”. Ask for advice, ask for a listening ear and don’t be afraid to ask what questions you need answered to find your niche. Becoming an expert is not a solo journey. There are many who are willing to lend a hand and help guide you along the way. Connect and surround yourself with those who also strive for excellence. The road to establishing yourself as an expert and career is never a straight line. Instead it is full or twists, turns and sometimes even a few detours.