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What's it really like to work in a dental practice?

Short answer: never a dull moment!

Experience, whether positive or negative, working in a dental practice depends upon the role that is performed with accountability defined in a detailed job description. Collectively there will be a generalized description of the work expected, and individually, there will be quite a different experience depending upon whom is telling the story.  For instance, if you are a dental assistant, your primary function is patient care under the direct supervision of the dentist. Your job description will list four or six-handed assisting, sterilizing instruments, seating patients, taking radiographs, and preliminary impressions, to name a few.  The dentist will see the dental assistant’s work and be able to judge the job performance firsthand.

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Front office vs. clinical team

Even though it isn’t intentional, there is often a disconnect with the front office and the clinical team.  If you are working at the front desk as a Business/Office Manager your primary position is patient interaction on the phone and with filling out patient intake forms, collecting and processing insurance information and financial arrangements for payments on accounts.  The front desk or business area is under the indirect supervision of the dentist. If the practice is busy with a constant flow of patients, the dentist rarely interacts with the front office staff.

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Some dental workers see this as a rift that separates the “back from the front.” The most common area of discord is the schedule.  The business staff often have not been given a clear understanding of how much time it takes to complete a procedure before putting another patient into the plan.  As a dentist trying to establish a cohesive team spirit, this can be an issue that needs some intervention. Creating nurturing dental staff meetings and team building activities help to strengthen the team as doing regular morning huddles where each person knows their responsibility to the patients on the schedule.  If a team member needs help, the morning huddle is where the matter is discussed to ensure team support in the best possible way.

Changes in the daily routine are common

The dentist(s) boss or the dental management company usually dictate the rules and protocols regarding each function of the practice, but that too can change by circumstances not anticipated in the daily routine. The challenge that every day can be different can make the workday in a dental office exciting and can also make it chaotic, hectic, and unpredictable.

As much as dental offices have regular operations, it can vary every day due to the patients that come in for treatment and the procedures necessary to provide the best dental care.  In a general dental practice, some days may start with crowns and fillings or may begin with a second molar root canal (endodontic) procedure. Scheduled at the same time in the dental hygiene room will be a patient periodic examination that must be addressed within the next 50 minutes.  Throw in the unexpected emergency toothache patient and now you are out of time.

Time management and knowing what is going on in each treatment room is the key to the proper flow of patients through the practice. In the situation of control of the dental practice, a good leader is necessary to avoid a crisis that can become a daily routine.  If the management or the dentist owner is not a strong leader, usually one of the staff steps up and becomes the leader. A good leader instills trust, integrity, passion, peacemaking, and commitment to the team.

Emergency patients

Practices that see several emergency patients each day will undoubtedly be more unpredictable than practices that limit emergency patients to one in the morning and one in the afternoon.  Deciding what type of dentistry, you want the practice to provide and the environment of the practice is essential to establishing a healthy workplace for the staff and the patients under their care.  The direction that the dental practice is developing can always be improved but it takes a proactive approach by management and a team that is allowed to participate in the process.

Coordinating the placement of patients

Dental practices, like other healthcare facilities, operate on a schedule of patients.  The plan determines the who, what and when of the practice. A typical dental schedule involves patient care in two to three operatories for one (or two) dentist and an additional operatory for each working hygienist. Coordinating the placement of the patients by type of appointment is the business/scheduling coordinator or management. The schedule is accessible by the computer screen and often are printed out and hung in all areas of the practice where staff can check them for any additions or deletions throughout the day.  It is vital that the schedule is updated every time there is a change. When a change occurs, the staff must decide where the patient will be seated, how long the appointment will take, and what team members and materials will be necessary to serve the patient's needs.

Quick snacks

For the altruistic dental team the needs of every patient come first, which often translates into no lunch or a quick snack on the run lunch or a later lunch and few if any breaks. It is a common joke among dental personnel that you must have the "bladder of a camel" or you won't survive in the business.

Read: 5 dental hygienists share their RDH job horror stories >>

Feeling appreciated

A common complaint of dental staff is lack of recognition.  If the hectic responsibilities of the job often challenge employees, their salaries must compensate for their passion and commitment to the patients and the practice.  It doesn't necessarily mean "money,". A frequent "thank you", a little paid time off or a gift certificate go a long way too!

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Availability changes require the whole dental team to be flexible

Just when you thought you found the perfect schedule, the workforce in a dental practice can and does change from time to time.  Practice growth or the leaving of a valued staff member are two reasons why dental practice seeks new employees.  Most workers are female of childbearing age, which makes for life changes that include quitting a job or taking on fewer hours and less responsibility.   A regular need for a dental practice often consists of the recruiting, hiring, and onboarding of new team members.

A new and better way to connect with the right people for your practice is not a temp agency or a resume on a job board; it is Cloud Dentistry. They charge a very affordable flat fee. The dental staff sets their live schedule online, and dental practices book staff "on-demand." They can discuss and view their qualifications and experience directly too.   The busy dentist or practice manager cuts out a lot of the time involved by using Cloud dentistry to recruit the best people. That time saved can be better used to grow the practice and see to patients many needs.