Veteran Pediatric Dentist, Dr. Rhea Haugseth, Launches The Nation’s First Pediatric Dental Assistant School
After 34 Years Practicing In Marietta, Georgia, The Former President of The American Academy Of Pediatric Dentistry Transitions To Develop PDAS As A National, Multi-Location Institution. In her 34 years as a pediatric dentist in Marietta, Georgia, Dr. Rhea Haugseth has given thousands of children (from infant to college age) healthier teeth and better smiles. She has also helped them overcome any fears they may have had when they first visited Post Oak Pediatric Dentistry. She’s enjoyed watching several generations of kids grow up healthier and happier as a result of her efforts. She appreciates every smile, hug and giggle from her patients – and those priceless moments when she’d hear patients tell their parents they couldn’t wait to come back.
Dr. Haugseth has risen to the top echelons of her profession, serving as President of the Southeastern Society of Pediatric Dentistry, the Georgia Academy of Pediatric Dentistry and, from 2011-12, the 8,000 member American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. Her overall love of working with children and dedicating her professional life to their dental and general health has given her the opportunity to solve one of the major challenges of her career. She has been continually frustrated by the lack of well-trained pediatric dental assistants she could employ as team members in her practice. There was little clinical training in pediatric dental assisting at the many dental assisting schools in the Atlanta area.
In recent years, she noticed that graduates of these dental assistant schools who came to do their “externships” in her practice seemed ill equipped to work in the pediatric realm; they had the book experience, but not any clinical experience dealing with young patients, which they needed to succeed in a dental office. This has led her to develop the Pediatric Dental Assistant School, a specialized program specifically designed to train dental assistants seeking rewarding careers in pediatric dentistry.
Her intensive training program – which promises that students will be “highly trained and clinically competent in nine weeks” – is similar to other dental assistant schools in the Atlanta area. However, the Pediatric Dental Assistant School is the only one of its kind in the United States. In addition to her commitment to growing the flagship location in Marietta, Dr. Haugseth is currently researching demographic trends and laying the foundation to open schools under this name in large cities where there are enough pediatric dentists to ensure immediate potential employment opportunities for the graduates of her training program.
Just as Dr. Haugseth and her staff at Post Oak Pediatric Dentistry use specialized, child friendly terminology (“giving teeth a shower,” “washing off sugar bugs”) to communicate dental procedures with young patients, she uses dynamic, infectious and cheerful kid-positive language on the school’s website to attract potential students. It asks visitors to “imagine a career that gives you lots of hugs, a multitude of smiles and tons of giggles every day! This is the life of a Pediatric Dental Assistant.”
The site also mentions an enticing statistic in connection to an expanding but still somewhat sluggish economy where college grads as well as young people who chose to not attend college are often struggling to find jobs or careers that interest them. A recent national survey demonstrated that the average salary for a pediatric dental assistant is $18 per hour.
While covering the basic elements of this unique training, the information on the website also states: “Pediatric Dental Assisting is VERY DIFFERENT from regular dental assisting. Our patients can be challenging, but the rewards are TREMENDOUS! Working with children and teens demands that we have fun while we work – they bring it out in us! WE LOVE KIDS – and if you are still reading this you do too! If this sounds good to you – join us. Become a PEDIATRIC DENTAL ASSISTANT! You won’t regret it. In fact, you’ll thank us every day you go to work. It’s FUN!”
Classes at the Pediatric Dental Assistant School are taught in her state of the art pediatric dental office and the curriculum is a mixture of home study, didactic course work, with an extensive focus on clinical experience and training. Contributing to the student’s personal development and their technical expertise is the fact that the ratio is four students per instructor. The workload includes 5-6 hours of homework per week; nine weeks of class (every Saturday) and 40 hours of externship; a passing grade of 75 must be achieved in all written and clinical exams in order to receive Certificates of Completion from Pediatric Dental School, a certification in Dental Radiology from the Georgia Department of Human Resources, and CPR Coursework includes Jurisprudence (covering the legal aspects of dentistry and patient records), Dental Terminology, Hygiene, Sterilization, Radiology, Impressions, Behavior Management, “Four Handed Dentistry” (chair side assisting, instrument passing, rubber dam placement, matrix and wedge placement, amalgam procedures, etc.) and CPR Certification.
“Developing the Pediatric Dental Assistant School is first and foremost connected to my desire to help dentists and their staffs take care of the kids being treated,” says Dr. Haugseth. “With the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, there are more children in the system that were not enrolled before. As pediatric dentists are taking care of the new patient influx, they will need more staff – and I know from personal experience how difficult it is to find qualified pediatric dental assistants who help us provide optimum patient care. It’s also about the young people and those who may be returning to the workforce finding solid employment opportunities. It’s that old Catch-22: to get a job they need experience but to get experience, they need a job. They need professionals who will take a chance on them. The great thing about our school is that they don’t need to have had formal coursework or previous degrees to enroll.”
“Another promising trend I am noticing is that patients who had positive pediatric dental experiences while growing up, finish high school and/or community college and are open to becoming a dental assistant,” she adds. “Those who are successful will sometimes opt to go to hygiene school and/or dental school. That’s why at Post Oak Pediatric Dentistry, we have invited high school students to come in and work with us during the summer. They get to see what we do and hopefully we can inspire some of them pursue careers in dentistry.”
Revolutionary though it is, launching the Pediatric Dental Assistant School is not the first time Dr. Haugseth has broken exciting new ground in her profession. When she was at the University of Louisville Dental School in the early 70s, the field was truly a “boys club” and the prevailing mindset was that female students were taking up a spot that should be reserved for a male who needed to work to support a family. Women, many felt, would either drop out before earning their degree, or practice only part time or not at all when they had children.
She became frustrated when she would receive lower grades for comparable work to her male colleagues, but eventually her hard work and determination to succeed – combined with the success achieved by those female dental students who preceded her – helped her earn the respect of her peers.
Upon graduating, Dr. Haugseth still had some interesting times. Choosing to not set up a practice right away, she applied for a dental position through the Public Health Service. “I thought I would work for Indian Health Services where there was an opportunity to take over for someone who was supposedly retiring – but that option fell through,” she says.
“The one thing I said on my application I didn’t want was a position I eventually took – being a staff dentist at the Federal Male Maximum Security prison in El Reno, Oklahoma. Working there for a year on prisoners and transferees really helped me focus back on pediatrics. I decided that I didn’t want to take care of only adults and didn’t want a general dentistry practice. I applied to different pediatric dental residency programs and chose Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio, which was affiliated with Case Western Reserve University School of Dentistry.”
Setting down roots in Marietta at a time (1981) when Cobb County was listed as the fastest growing county in the U.S., Dr. Haugseth created a “high tech, high touch, inviting dental practice with a fun learning environment.” Her focus has always been on individualized care for each child and building a foundation of trust by treating her young patients as individuals and family. Her key philosophy has been prevention and her team has, for over three decades now, provided state of the art treatment while taking the time to educate both parents and young patients on the importance of preventive care.
For parents who are considering taking their children to a pediatric dentist instead of a family dentist that cares for both adults and children, Dr. Haugseth has a simple way of explaining the value of placing their trust in a dentist whose focus is children. Just as a pediatrician specializes in children’s overall health, pediatric dentists specialize and are experts in the growth and development of children’s mouths. They can spot problems such as early decay or crowded teeth – and treat them – before they do major damage.
Pediatric dentists know as much about kids as they do about children’s dentistry. They undergo extensive training in child development and child psychology, which means they can calm kids’ fears and make visiting the dentist a fun, positive experience. Dr. Haugseth’s methods of care have had a major impact on how thousands of kids care for their teeth – and how they feel about going to the dentist in general. She has long been committed to helping kids learn how to properly care for their teeth and develop the good brushing habits that get their smiles started.
Like most pediatric dentists, Dr. Haugseth’s office includes a playroom for children waiting to see her, and the brothers, sisters and friends who also come. The rooms are brightly colored and there is large lettering everywhere reminding kids to brush, floss and smile. Every room has a lot of objects hanging from the ceilings, from plants in the waiting room to mobiles and iconic TV characters in the playroom and operatories. There are also stuffed windsocks, Nintendo, handheld games, a TV, radios and CD players, etc.
“It’s important that pediatric dentists and their staffs, including dental assistants, bring to the practice an awareness that kids truly operate on their own time and in their own way,” she says. “You have to bring an empathy for kids and genuinely like them and enjoy being around them – because they are fun! TV and radio personality Art Linkletter is famous for his quote, ‘Kids say the darndest things’ because they do! It’s great working with them because you never know what they’re going to say and what you will learn about them and yourself while working with them.
“They’ll often open up and tell you about what’s going on at home and school,” Dr. Haugseth adds. “It’s interesting how they filter and process things. One of the keys to being successful as their dentist is coming to understand that you can’t be extremely regimented when you interact with them. It’s important to be flexible and go a little slower. There are a lot of different variables, including dealing with their parents and making sure they are happy and comfortable with the dental care the kids are receiving. I see us as a coach for the family in how they can help develop and maintain optimum oral health for their children. We truly want every child to be happy and have a healthy, beautiful smile throughout their lifetime.”