The Articulate Dentist - A Blog by the Metro Denver Dental Society

Help is On the Way

By: Allen Vean, DMD, MDDS Co-Editor

No one needs to remind us the workforce challenge is the number one issue facing our profession for the near future. The medical profession is facing the same issue. The
American College of Healthcare Executives reports in their annual survey that staff shortages are at the top of their list for the coming year. We can look back and place the
blame on Covid, retirements, burnout, stress and mental health issues. I could go on and on. However, that reminds me of a group of dentists sitting around and reliving the past. It does not help us go forward.

In December 2023, the ADA’s Health Policy Institute (HPI) released data from their Economic Outlook and Emerging Issues in Dentistry. The purpose of the survey was to measure the ongoing impact of COVID-19 and other emerging issues in the profession. Although the data was collected in the last part of December 2023, over three thousand of our colleagues participated over the course of the survey. Three core measures of the survey caught my attention. From March 2022 to December 2023, more than 33% of dentists continue to report they are actively recruiting hygienists and assistants. In the category of staff hiring, almost half (45.3%) of owner dentists were hiring dental assistants and thirty-two percent were hiring hygienists. But the most telling statistic was from December 2022 to December 2023, almost 95% of the respondents reported challenges in recruiting hygienists and 85% reported difficulty in recruiting assistants.

Online recruitment and word of mouth accounted for 50% of the new hires. Let us take this aspect a little further. In my experience with dental hygiene students, many of them were dental assistants who desired to complete further academic requirements and become hygienists. Indeed, they will enter a workforce where the demand far outstrips the supply due to the retirement of hygienists outnumbering the hygiene students graduating from accredited programs. Here is a thought. If your practice has an assistant who has been an asset to your office and has been accepted to a hygiene program, maybe you should consider this person returning to your office after graduation. You could also consider helping this employee with some financial assistance for tuition and could keep in contact to offer support during their education. We should be taking advantage of this built-in feeder system. To have a previous employee return to your practice after continuing their dental education is a positive for your patients and an excellent reflection on your office culture.

In my opinion, the dental assistant shortage is more complicated. Our profession must compete with other industries for entry-level employees. Our responsibility is to provide a working environment and culture that will attract and retain new employees. I have heard instances where an assistant was made to clock out during non-busy times and then clock back in when patients arrive. And we wonder why it is difficult to keep staff and the turnover rate is high. Practices who have participated as a dental assisting extern site locations have an opportunity to recruit new employees. However, this is a two-way street. It is crucial we also provide mentorship to these students. They are not placed in a practice to perform menial tasks. I would encourage practices to reach out to these dental assisting programs. There may come a day when a student could become your next hygienist or even associate!

But as Robin Williams shouted in the classic scene from Mrs. Doubtfire, “Help is on the way.” There is a new accredited hygiene program, Colorado Mountain College, located in Edwards that will begin classes this summer with students graduating in 2026. I have also heard that three new programs are in the works along the front range. The CDA will be supporting SB24-010 which would enable hygienists to participate in a Compact Privilege allowing them to practice without having to satisfy burdensome and duplicative requirements. In addition, the CDA Workforce Task Force has completed its work. Their report will be presented to the House of Delegates in May 2024.

It is imperative to remember there are no short-term fixes or solutions. Patient safety and quality of care will always remain at the top of our priority list.

As always, thank you for your membership in organized dentistry. Your comments are always welcome.

The Articulate Dentist is a blog by the Metro Denver Dental Society, providing members with insight into the dental industry, practice management tips, tech trends and best practices as well as Society news and updates.