By Susan Richards
It’s pretty hard to go anywhere these days without seeing signs that indicate long waits or service challenges due to staffing shortages. Some businesses that survived the first wave of the pandemic have been unable to outlast this current crisis.
Even as patients have returned to the chair, many dental employees joined the “Great Resignation” due to safety concerns, childcare, money, and various other reasons.
According to the most recent American Dental Association (ADA) Health Policy Institute (HPI) survey, almost 40% of dentists who responded are actively recruiting hygienists and assistants and most of them are finding it extremely challenging. The shortage of registered dental hygienists was already an issue before 2020, but when practices were forced to shut down early in the pandemic it only contributed to the problem.
As a result, it’s become imperative for dental professionals to think creatively to continue safely treating their patients while building and maintaining their teams. Here are some short- and long-term solutions for mitigating the shortage and avoiding your own “Please Be Patient” sign.
Mining the ever-increasing advances in technology can help ease the workload and free up staff to be more effective. Some tools may already be in place but can be expanded – especially for front office tasks.
Cancellations and no-shows are the biggest contributors to low patient volume as well as disruptive to a short-handed team, so make sure your online tools are working to prevent this. In addition to online appointment scheduling, incorporate automated reminders via email or text and set up payment portals. Urge patients to handle pre-appointment paperwork online before arriving to save paper, time, and staffing needs.
Where possible, streamline your patient care systems to be more productive and linked to one another, such as patient records, insurance, and scheduling. It’s especially helpful with multi-office practices and can eliminate employees needing to manually connect everything.
Many dentists introduced or increased the use of teledentistry during the height of the pandemic to reduce health risks and maintain good patient care. By incorporating intraoral cameras or scheduling a follow-up Zoom call to discuss a treatment plan, dentists can save time and money until an in-office appointment is required.
Thanks to necessity and new platforms and tools, teledentistry is a billion-dollar industry that is expected to keep growing.
The use of augmented or artificial intelligence (AI) in dental practices is advancing along with the technology itself. By comparing past images with current radiographs, certain AI tools can assess patterns and identify problems before scheduling valuable chair time.
It can also be incorporated into administrative automation and reduce human error in data entry.
“AI brings consistency to dentistry,” said Kyle Stanley, DDS, in a recent ADA article about technology and solutions for staffing shortages. “By being consistent and comprehensive, we can build trust with our patients, reduce our liability and decrease stress.”
It goes without saying, that hiring the right staff up front will solve a multitude of problems, but how do dentists recover lost employees, hire, and retain the best? It’s not just about the pay, although that can factor in with such a competitive market and the current inflation crisis.
Make a Difference
Hiring experts recommend approaching new hires proactively. By identifying “difference makers” dentists can build a team of engaged problem solvers who see themselves as part of the solution. Reward employees with competitive pay, sure, but also create a strong work environment by checking in regularly to avoid cases of burnout. Cross-train where appropriate so unexpected absences can be quickly covered and consider continuing education training for current employees who wish to grow their skills.
While temporary staffing used to be considered a stopgap measure, many practices are now keeping a healthcare temp agency on speed dial. Many of those that left the full-time workforce for various reasons are now finding the flexibility of filling in as needed to be a better fit. By creating an auxiliary team of regular temps, you can supplement the current team or call someone in for last-minute appointments.
On-demand platforms like Stynt – which was created by a dentist – are finding success by matching temp and full-time job seekers with short-staffed practices.
The New Normal?
As one of many cringe-inducing expressions brought about by the age of COVID, this “new normal” of hiring issues are likely to define what dental professionals can continue to expect. Fortunately, our industry has proven to be resilient and resourceful.
By combining common-sense measures like cutting overhead or raising fees to compensate for salary increases with the creative suggestions offered here, dentists can lay a stronger foundation for challenging times – now and later.
Author: Susan Richards is a staff writer at DOCS Education. With over 20 years of experience in local journalism and business marketing, Susan’s career includes award-winning feature writing, as well as creating content with context for a wide variety of industries.