Although it seems 2022 won’t be the year that patient care “returns to normal,” dental practices should not look at the year ahead as another pandemic year. With two years of experience in practicing in the pandemic era, dental offices can elevate their sites and look beyond the day-to-day operations. Despite variants and burnout, these offices have proven their ability to keep staff and patients safe from the coronavirus while providing important dental care for all.
This year, dental offices will be seen elevating the experiences for patients and hygienists, resulting in better outcomes and an increase in both patient and employee satisfaction.
REIMAGINING THE DENTAL EXPERIENCE FOR PATIENTS
It is no secret that increasing patient satisfaction begins with better communication in and out of the office. The dentist office can be an intimidating, sometimes stressful place for patients, which is why communication between dental providers and patients is crucial.
In-office communication should prioritize making patients as comfortable and knowledgeable as possible. This is especially true for the many patients that neglected preventative care.
The most effective way to make these patients feel comfortable is with nonjudgmental communication about oral hygiene with the emphasis placed on addressing issues and course correcting for better outcomes, all while creating a safe, fun environment for patients to return to.
Dental offices can strengthen patient-provider relationships further with technology. Tech-enabled transparency in the diagnostic process builds patient trust by increasing diagnostic consistency across offices. Replacing 2D radiographs with 3D visualization tools during diagnostics leads to more accurate and better patient treatment planning.
Additionally, the use of 3D scanners allows hygienists and other dental providers to give their patients a better understanding of what is going on with their oral care by providing more personalized instructions through videos, printouts, and verbal communication.
Hygienists can use scanning to transform visits into enjoyable, interactive visits, rather than uncomfortable one-way lectures about oral health.
The advancing technology in dentistry has the power to change not only the way providers evaluate dental prognosis but check in with their patients between major appointments and communicate with those who live remotely or have challenging schedules.
Teledentistry proved to be an important communication tool when patients were hesitant to return to care in the early days of the pandemic.
Additionally, dental offices will continue successfully deploying technology to communicate with their patients through text messaging, emails, phone call reminders, scheduling, and billing—making communication easy while mitigating COVID-19 exposure risk. With this added convenience from technology, dental offices can enhance patient experiences by making them feel safe by proactively sharing what the office continues to do to protect patients and staff from COVID-19 exposure.
HYGIENISTS BEYOND THE CHAIR
Burnout continues to affect many areas in healthcare and the dental field is no exception. Just like most in the healthcare field, hygienists are experiencing record levels of burnout, resulting in record levels of resignations. The field of hygiene is ripe for reinvention, and the offices that can give their hygienist (or hygienists) the opportunities to connect with a higher purpose will see the greatest rewards in terms of staff retention and satisfaction.
For example, many hygienists are setting aside days in their schedule (or taking a full sabbatical) from traditional office settings to provide care to underserved communities in special clinics on reservations, and in rural and urban healthcare deserts.
Not only does the change in scenery provide a professionally engaging experience, but the opportunity to service less fortunate patients can have profound mental benefits.
In addition to facilitating philanthropic efforts, dental offices can support hygienists in their continuing education courses, which enable them to learn to use new materials that are better for patients and time savers. When practice/DSO leadership provides these opportunities for their hygienists to branch out and broaden their knowledge to better understand new materials and technology for their patients, it increases employee satisfaction and contributes to their professional growth.
Facilitating hygienists in their pursuit of a higher purpose with philanthropic endeavors and continued education leads to happier, more satisfied employees, and encourages them to do their best work.
While out of the hands of individual offices, the legislative conversations that have recently begun about expanding hygienists’ opportunities that could be a boon for hygienists’ growth and satisfaction in the long run. Due to red tape and restrictions from legislation, hygienists are blocked from providing care to vulnerable populations without significant (and often arbitrary) oversight from dentists in settings like nursing homes.
Despite a significant need for dental care, hygienists are barred from providing that care. For this reason, activists are calling for legislative changes to allow them to provide routine care in new settings. Underpinning this legislative conversation is the fact that hygienists are not highly valued outside of the industry.
A significant contributor to hygienist burnout is the lack of respect and credit the profession receives as a whole, so if dental offices want to retain these all-important workers, public perceptions will need to shift. These legislative discussions are an important component to changing public perception about hygienists’ role in patient’s oral care and highlighting how hygienists are so much more than teeth cleaners.
After two arduous years of practicing dentistry during the pandemic, it is time to elevate the dental experience. Not only for patients, but for hygienists as well. This year, increased communication in and out of the office, with the help of advancing dental technology, will enhance the patient experience. In tandem with these patient-centric initiatives, dental practice leadership can empower their hygienists with fulfilling work and opportunities for progression, which in turn will boost employee satisfaction and patient care.
By shifting their sites from “surviving” the pandemic, the coming year will be an exciting one for dental offices with new innovations and reinvigorated practice culture.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Misty Mattingly, RDH, BSDH, is the Vice President of Hygiene Operations at Sage Dental, responsible for overseeing operations and managing a hygienist team of over 100 across Sage Dental’s 65 practices. She is dedicated to advancing the use of innovative technology in the dental field, including artificial intelligence and teledentistry.
Mattingly is the past President of the Georgia Dental Hygienist Association and past delegate for the American Dental Hygiene Association.