Strategies to manage the labor shortage in the dental industry
A common topic at conferences and in the dental media lately is the shortage of people to hire. The sustained pre-COVID economic boom was already putting pressure on labor supply, and the past 18 months have made matters worse.
The American Dental Hygienists Association (ADHA) says 8% of dental hygienists have left the profession since COVID hit, and we have every reason to believe the same is true for other dental practice positions. .1
Whether externally imposed or office policy, mandating staff vaccinations can make matters worse by further limiting the pool of available talent. So how can a practice owner maintain a full roster of employees when there is a shortage of available people? Here are some ideas:
Keep existing staff happy. The value of a trained and motivated staff member who knows the practice and the patients is enormous. Make sure you respect that. Money is always a factor in job satisfaction, but other factors are often more important. For example, the extent to which an employee feels listened to is integral to job satisfaction.
Be proactive. Every dentist understands the value of a short-notice list for patients, but few apply the same concept to staffing. When an employee leaves, many practice owners begin a “cold” job search. Every practice owner should continually search for people who might be suitable for their practice. The people you meet at conferences, the patients in your practice, or that particularly attentive waiter you notice while dining out on a Friday night should all rank. Your short-notice job search will always be more effective if you have already identified two or three promising candidates.
Expand your horizons. Many practice owners limit their search to people with dental experience. In times of labor shortages, this further reduces the already small pool of potential candidates. For an accredited position such as dental hygiene, it is obviously impossible to hire people from other fields. However, provided you have good manuals and other training resources, candidates outside of dentistry may be considered for customer service positions.
Create a dental assisting school. Although not a short-term solution, some dentists have solved persistent shortages of dental assistants this way.
Be productive. Removing productivity bottlenecks can allow you to operate temporarily or even permanently with fewer people. Improving productivity can mean anything from replacing a 10-year-old workstation, to adopting new patient communication software, to using dental assistants. to increase hygienic production.
Outsource. Some companies specialize in various front-office functions, such as submitting and tracking insurance claims, answering incoming calls, and providing customer service through the chat function on your website. The best candidates to consider outsourcing are technical or potentially disruptive tasks.
Overstaffing. While there is a measurable cost to having more staff than needed, the cost of understaffing can be much higher. Also, if good staff allows you to improve the patient experience (“Would you like a coffee while we prepare for you?”), then suddenly, instead of a cost, you have a practice- builder.
Once you’ve mapped out a few strategies for solving your staffing issues, it’s time to consider vetting potential employees. One of the best strategies for protecting your practice against embezzlement is to screen potential employees carefully.2 Dentistry has earned a justified reputation for being flippant when it comes to pre-employment screening. As a result, we see many “serial embezzlers” licensed to victimize multiple practices.
It should be noted that proper screening involves more than a criminal record check (although one in four American adults has a criminal record, this step should never be skipped3). Proper screening should also include making contact with former employers, drug testing, credit checks, checking credentials, checking social media and, of course, checking Prosperident’s Hall of Shame at prosperident.com/hall-of-shame.
It’s tempting, when you post a job and only get one candidate, to avoid proper screening. Eventually, this approach will hurt you. While a tight job market may cause you to lower your standards (a dentist recently described his current standard to me as “two feet and a heartbeat”), any decision to settle for less than ideal should be based on a clear idea of the trade-offs you make in relation to your usual needs. Unwittingly hiring a serial scammer probably won’t solve your staffing problems and will certainly create many other problems.
Fortunately, dental office jobs offer steady employment, good working hours, and the ability to help people in a healthcare environment. There are many great people for whom the vacancy you are filling is a great choice. The challenge is to find these people, and to do so in a compressed time frame. The strategies here will help you and should also increase your ability to properly screen candidates.
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the January 2022 print edition of Dental economy.
1. Gurenlian JR, Morrissey R, Estrich CG, et al. Employment patterns of dental hygienists in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic. J Tooth Hyg. 2021;95(1):17-24.
2. Harris D. Why Dentists Hire Badly. Prosperous. May 31, 2017. https://www.prosperident.com/dentist-hire-badly/
3. Arnold C, Dimon J. Nearly 70 million Americans have a criminal record. We have to give them a second chance. CNN Business. April 27, 2021. Accessed November 6, 2021. https://edition.cnn.com/2021/04/27/perspectives/second-chance-hiring-dimon/index.html