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Dental Office Policies & Procedures: The Key Elements of an Effective Employee Handbook

Two men in a business meeting with one man taking notes.

You pride your dental practice on its strong reputation and commitment to excellence. Your talented, passionate employees are responsible for your impressive track record. Their hard work keeps your office running smoothly. They'll find it easier to fulfill high expectations with the guidance and support of clear protocols, referenced in your employee manual — a key resource for promoting effective office management.

According to Belle DuCharme, a certified dental practice management administrator and dental consultant, strategic office management is critical in light of how "dentistry has become an integrated healthcare system that is important to the total health of the patient."

When all staff members understand your practice's mission and their powerful role in promoting patient health and wellbeing, they are more likely to conduct themselves in a way that reflects positively on your office.

The employee manual offers an excellent opportunity for outlining specific expectations and your general philosophies as a dental office. Unfortunately, the comprehensive nature of this document — and its role in maintaining compliance with a variety of federal and local laws — can make the prospect of developing such an extensive resource intimidating. DuCharme mentions that few dentists "have the time or expertise to develop employee policy manuals," particularly if they expect these to abide by complex legal requirements. Additional resources are often necessary.

To help, we've highlighted several topics you might expect to cover in your practice's manual. We'll also direct you to templates and samples that demonstrate how policies function at various dental offices.

11 Key Topics to Consider Covering in Your Dental Office's Policies & Procedures

Regardless of your practice's size or approach, expectations must be clearly outlined from the get-go to ensure that all employees understand how they are supposed to conduct themselves. There should never be any question as to your dental office's core philosophy and culture. Staff members should also understand how they can promote compliance with critical legislation, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards.

All this and more can be accomplished with a detailed employee handbook. This resource provides a thorough overview of expectations, policies, and procedures. Not only will it provide your staff members with the guidance they need for professional success, but your handbook is essential for achieving legal compliance. As the California Dental Association points out, a "legally compliant manual can help protect your practice from lawsuits."

While exact topics referenced in dental office manuals may differ from one practice to the next, the following are among the most important:

Topic #1: Mission Statement

Consider stating your practice's mission or philosophy of care near the beginning of the manual. This can be simple and succinct. In the New Jersey Dental Association's sample manual, for example, the mission statement example references a practice that "exists to provide quality dental care to its patients on a timely and efficient basis.

Topic #2: HIPAA Compliance

One of the most crucial topics addressed in dental office policies, HIPAA determines how and under what circumstances practices can handle pre-determinations, treatment authorization requests, or claims electronically.

Try to craft your policies in enough detail so that all staff members understand how to safeguard Protected Health Information (PHI). Employees may also need to be aware of protocol for alerting patients to your office's privacy practices. Furthermore, they may require guidance for functions such as updating social media pages, as this content must also protect patient privacy as outlined in HIPAA.

Topic #3: OSHA Compliance

OSHA’s dental practice guidelines are not regulatory in nature, but instead provide valuable reminders of "existing mandated safety and health standards." In addition to following applicable rules for dentistry, you can protect your employees — and help them protect one another — by adhering to general industry standards that address exposure to "numerous biological, chemical, environmental, physical, and psychological workplace hazards."

Your manual may explain how you intend to protect employees, as mandated by regulations from OSHA and your state's Department of Labor. Many dental office manuals reference important OSHA-related documents, such as infection control protocol or exposure control plans. It can also be helpful to explain who is responsible for reviewing and updating these plans. Often, this responsibility falls to a compliance officer.

Topic #4: Discrimination & Harassment Prevention

Unfortunately, discrimination and harassment remain significant issues at some dental practices. Strong policies can prevent a toxic culture from developing while also alerting employees to the need for prompt reporting when problematic incidents occur.

Consider including the following in your handbook:

  • A statement verifying that your dental practice is an equal opportunity employer.
  • Definitions of key terms, such as sexual harassment.
  • Protocol for reporting suspected harassment to management.
  • Assurance that no retaliatory measures will impact dental office employees who report harassment.
  • Policies for investigating and following up on reports of harassment.
  • Mentions of potential disciplinary measures, such as the dismissal of either employees or patients who violate anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies.

Topic #5: Scheduling & Attendance

This portion of your employee manual may outline how scheduling occurs, when it is acceptable to be absent, and how staff members can respond if they are unable to arrive for their shifts on time — or at all. Your handbook might also mention employees' rights to breaks under federal law, as well as the provision of paid or unpaid lunch breaks.

Consider explaining how schedules are determined and what happens if the managing dentist needs to be away due to professional conferences or vacation. Let employees know when they can expect paid holidays — and how other instances of paid time off will be handled.

Policies for time off may depend, in part, on whether staff members are employed on a full- or part-time basis. Unpaid leaves of absence and the arrangements for bereavement or court leave can also be described in this section.

Overtime policies are crucial components of employee manuals. Consider referencing the rights of non-exempt employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), especially when such employees work more than 40 hours within a particular workweek. Your manual might also highlight when employees are not entitled to overtime payment, as may be the case for some administrative staff members.

Topic #6: Paychecks & Benefits

Employees want to know when and how often to expect compensation for their work. Your office manual may also explain how income taxes, Social Security, disability, and unemployment insurance will be deducted. A brief summary of provided benefits could also be included.

Topic #7: Protocol for Voluntary & Involuntary Termination

How should employees proceed if they voluntarily choose to leave your practice? Consider what your ideal timeline is for giving advance notice. For example, many dental offices adopt the generally accepted standard of mandating two weeks of notice prior to leaving a position.

The potential for involuntary termination must also be addressed. Is your practice an at-will employer? If so, what might this mean for staff members? Such information may be covered by mentioning that your business has the right to terminate employment at any time. Your employee manual may also reference examples of situations that could lead to termination, particularly if repeat offenses occur.

Topic #8: Dress Code

From branding to maintaining a productive work environment and even promoting hygiene and safety, your dental office's dress code can serve many important functions. Try to balance making expectations clear while still providing some level of autonomy so that staff members can make their own decisions.

Adjectives such as "professional" and "well-groomed" help, but employees may differ in how they perceive these descriptors. Instead, get into specifics: You'll need to strike a careful balance between defining acceptable dress and avoiding anything that could be regarded as discriminatory.

Be careful when setting standards for body piercings and tattoos. While these have become more commonplace in the workforce, many dental offices still prefer to limit visibility in hopes of maintaining a professional atmosphere. Should you take this conservative approach, make restrictions abundantly clear and be aware of the consistency of your enforcement.

Let employees know that if there is any question as to the appropriateness of specific clothing items, they are welcome to ask management for feedback.

Topic #9: Policy Enforcement

What happens when staff members fail to follow the rules of your practice? You may think that disciplinary action is required but remember: Effective enforcement begins with clear guidelines. Employees cannot abide by rules that don't exist or that they struggle to understand.

In addition to outlining policies and procedures for the broad range of concerns mentioned above, consider explaining enforcement proceedings. What will happen if staff members violate key policies? How should they respond if they observe violations among other employees?

Jennifer Schultz tells marketing agency Delmain, "Execution is the missing link to achieving the practice you desire. Execution happens when you are clear about your goals, the strategy to achieve them, opportunities to communicate daily, and hold one another accountable."

Areas of enforcement referenced in your dental office manual may include:

  • Discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or age
  • Sexual harassment, such as unwanted physical or verbal conduct
  • Providing false or deceptive information in patient records
  • Submitting inaccurate information to insurers or third-party administrators
  • Altering documents or committing forgery
  • Chronic lateness or absenteeism

Topic #10: Potential Changes to Office Policy

Dental policy updates may prove necessary from time to time. To help employees understand this, include a section in the manual that references the right to change any policy without prior notice.

Topic #11: Employee Attestation

You may want your employees to verify that they have been given copies of manuals or other documents highlighting dental office policies and procedures, and understand that their employment is subject to the provisions included in such resources. Consider adding a signature line acknowledging receipt and understanding of the document.

4 Sample Dental Office Policies & Procedures

Now that you understand which topics are essential for dental office handbooks, it's time to dive in with specific examples. Keep in mind, however, that while the templates and samples highlighted below can serve as valuable inspiration, they should not be your sole source of information. After all, policies can differ significantly based on your practice's philosophy, culture, and types of services offered.

1. ADA Practical Guide to Creating & Updating an Employee Policy Manual

This valuable ADA resource comes complete with nearly 100 sample dental office policies, as well as definitions of key HR terms and even samples of dental job applications. Its template format provides a straightforward, easy-to-understand approach that can streamline the process of developing key policies and procedures.

Dr. Bryce Dorrough praises this resource, explaining that it "highlighted the critical need to have a detailed employee handbook and made a daunting task very manageable."

2. California Dental Association Sample Employee Manual

Highlighting policies related to discrimination, retaliation prevention, and several other sensitive topics, this free resource is available for download on the CDA's website. It was developed by attorneys in hopes of providing detailed guidance while also allowing dental offices to customize as needed.

Beyond its sample manual, the CDA offers a variety of other resources that can help with developing and implementing dental office protocol. For example, the association provides a simple template with guidance for revising your practice's policies. Companies with already established HR policies may benefit from the CDA's manual generator, which, like the sample manual, was created under careful guidance from attorneys.

3. New Jersey Dental Association Dental Office Employee Manual

Another excellent resource from a respected association, NJDA's sample manual references many of the essentials included in the samples provided by ADA and CDA. This sample delves into the value of friendly interactions with the public, highlighting the need to "adhere to the highest standards of personal and professional ethics."

NJDA's sample also emphasizes the need for responding to inquiries from current or prospective patients as promptly as possible, while also explaining that "courtesy from the dental office staff must be the rule." Other areas of interest include security measures and emergency protocol.

4. New England Family Dentistry & Company

This is not a template, but rather an excellent example of a detailed dental office manual. The mission statement and company pillars included near the beginning of the manual are of particular interest. The document also outlines its general purpose, such as the inclusion of "parameters and guidance concerning the expectations of employees relating to their job function and responsibility within the organization."

Final Thoughts

There is no substitute for thorough dental office policies and protocols, which should be defined in detail in a handbook or manual made available to every employee. This resource will promote a more cohesive and professional practice, while also delivering the peace of mind that can only come with compliance.


Image courtesy of iStock.com/Pitchaya Pingpithayakul


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Berxi™ or Berkshire Hathaway Specialty Insurance Company. This article (subject to change without notice) is for informational purposes only, and does not constitute professional advice.

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