While the country seems to be experiencing an economic downturn, my dental practice has never been busier. A lot of my colleagues say the same. Patients appear to be prioritizing dental work now more than ever, perhaps because the fear of COVID has decreased. Those decayed or broken teeth didn't get better on their own, after all. As a result, the treatment plan acceptance rate is as high as I can remember.
But with demand at an all-time high, staffing availability and retention are at an extreme low. This imbalance has created quite the conundrum for dental offices. I can’t remember a time in my 20 years of practicing dentistry when there was such a demand from patients to get their treatment done but not enough staff to fulfill the need.
In this piece, I share strategies to plan around a lack of staff, retain a dental team, and find creative ways to attract new staff members to your practice.
Planning Around a Lack of Staff
Even though you’re aware of how staffing shortages are affecting your practice, you don’t want your patients to feel the crunch. You want them to feel they’re getting the same high-quality dental care they always have. With some planning, you can decrease the odds that they will notice any disruptions at all.
- Use “work from home” to your advantage. A lot of patients are now working remotely, either fully or partially. This creates schedule flexibility, as they no longer need those coveted 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. time slots. This availability puts dentists and scheduling coordinators in the driver's seat for better managing our schedules. You and your team are driving the bus — direct patients to a few possible seats where you want them to sit.
- Prioritize pain. Procedures aren't getting done or are being pushed way out in the schedule, which is not good, especially for patients in pain or those highly valued new patients. I advise leaving emergency and new patient time slots open later in the day in each daily schedule. The goal in our office is to get emergency patients in on the same day they call and new patients on the schedule within two days. Be vigilant in not violating the reserved time slots.
- Create fully staffed blocks of time. Find the days and times when your office is fully staffed, and book as many patients as possible. In my office, we are at full strength and fully staffed on Tuesdays through Thursdays. Therefore, I can make more side bookings these days. However, we are low on staff on Mondays, Fridays, and Saturdays and must be very strategic and selective.
Technology & Equipment
Find those game-changing pieces of equipment that can help you better manage staffing shortages. For example, I use isolation devices to help me retract the patient’s lips, cheeks, and tongue; prop their mouth open; illuminate the mouth; and suction. This allows me to work alone, thus freeing up my assistant for other tasks, such as breaking down or setting up another operator.
Besides our patient routing slips, my office has gone entirely digital and paperless. We use Weave for intra-office communication, Birdeye for our reviews, and Ekwa Marketing for all of our social media. I also use an intra-oral scanner for crowns, bridges, implant restorations, night guards, study models, bleaching trays, sleep appliances, clear aligners, implant surgical guides, etc. In each case, we save precious staff time and effort. This time savings adds up over busy days.
Retaining Dental Team Members
The best employees are those you already have. And given the current situation, plenty of other practices would love to hire away your experienced, proven team members. So it’s important that you put some thought and effort into making your practice a great place to work.
Create a Positive Culture
When a business is busy but short-staffed, everyone feels the stress, which can strain the culture. You don't want to put too much on the plate of a short-staffed office. Too much work puts extra pressure on the team you have. It's just not worth overloading the schedule for that additional production. Be mindful of how your team is feeling at all times.
Remember, you need to keep and reward your valuable key team members. Turnover is brutal, and it can be especially devastating in a situation like we are currently experiencing. Appreciate the staff that you have and don’t overwork them. It’s just not worth losing a key team member.
Address Inflation & Requests for Raises
More and more, staff are requesting higher wages, and with good reason. First, they need high incomes to keep up with today’s soaring inflation. And second, they know their skills are in high demand. It’s definitely a “seller's market” when it comes to dental professionals and experienced office staff.
My advice here is to keep these staff members. This may involve increasing their wages to retain top talent. Yup, you may have to pay them more. However, if you are in a situation where you simply can’t do this or just want to get creative, then consider a bonus system. Explain in a team meeting that you want them to share in the practice's success and be rewarded for their hard work.
You can get inventive with bonuses. Try some out and see whether they are resonating with the staff. The entire team could get a bonus for reaching goals with production or online review responses. Individuals could receive bonuses for extra effort or positive patient feedback. This is good for them, you, and patients. It’s a win-win-win situation.
Finding Dental Staff
Think outside the box. In some states, you can train assistants with on-the-job training protocols. You don’t need to hire staff with dental experience. I prefer looking for hard-working potential employees in non-dental settings such as restaurants or stores. I will see someone who looks like a great energy-fit for my team and ask them if they are looking for a change of environment where they can possibly earn more money. Have them come in to observe the dental office setting. They can be trained in dental skills as long as they have a strong work ethic and a good attitude. Be vigilant in your search for good, smart people who want to work hard and be part of a team.
High demand for your services is a great problem to have, even in the midst of today’s staffing shortages. With some planning, a willingness to adapt, and patience as you wait for things to level out, you and your staff can continue to meet your goals for high-quality, patient-centered care.