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Strategies for navigating the dental industry labor shortage

Jan. 22, 2022
It's no secret that dentistry (like most industries) is experiencing a labor shortage due to the pandemic and other factors. Try these suggestions for vetting applicants, attracting talent, and keeping staff happy during this trying time.

A common subject at conferences and in dental media lately is the shortage of people to hire. The sustained pre-COVID economic boom was already exerting pressure on the labor supply, and the past 18 months have made things much worse.

The American Dental Hygienists’ Association (ADHA) states that 8% of dental hygienists have left the profession since COVID struck, and we have every reason to believe that the same is true for other dental office positions.1

Whether externally imposed or an office policy, a requirement for staff to be vaccinated can make things 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, motivated staff member who knows the office and the patients is considerable. Be sure to 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 needs to be continually looking for people who could be a fit for their practice. People you meet at conferences, patients of your practice, or that particularly attentive server you notice on a Friday night restaurant outing should all be filed away. Your short-notice job search will always be more effective if you have already identified two or three promising candidates.

Broaden your horizons. Many practice owners limit their search to people with dental experience. In a time of labor shortage, this further narrows the already-small pool of possible applicants. For a credentialed position like dental hygiene, it is obviously impossible to hire people from other fields. However, provided you have good manuals and other training resources, applicants outside dentistry can be considered for customer service positions.

Create a dental assisting school. While this is not a short-term solution, some dentists have addressed persistent shortages of dental assistants this way.

Be productive. Removing bottlenecks to productivity can allow you to function temporarily or even permanently with fewer people. Improving productivity could mean anything from replacing a 10-year-old workstation to adopting new patient communication software to using dental assistants for increasing hygiene output.

Outsource. There are companies that specialize in various front-office functions, such as submitting and following up on insurance claims, answering incoming calls, and providing customer service via the chat feature on your website. Top candidates to consider outsourcing are technical or potentially disruptive tasks.

Overstaff. While there is a measurable cost to having more staff on hand than you need, the cost of being understaffed can be much higher. Also, if being well-staffed allows you to enhance the patient experience (“Would you like some coffee while we are getting ready for you?”), then suddenly, instead of a cost, you have a practice-builder.

Related reading: 

Once you’ve settled on a few strategies to tackle your staffing woes, it’s time to consider vetting prospective employees. One of the best strategies for protecting your practice from embezzlement is to screen potential employees carefully.2 Dentistry has earned a justified reputation for being casual about preemployment screening. Consequently, we see many “serial embezzlers” allowed to victimize multiple practices.

It’s worth noting that a proper screening involves more than a criminal records check (although with one in four US adults having a criminal record, this step should never be skipped3). Proper screening should also include contacting former employers, drug testing, credit checks, credential verification, social media vetting, and of course checking Prosperident’s Hall of Shame at prosperident.com/hall-of-shame.

It is tempting, when you post a position and get only a single applicant, to eschew proper screening. Eventually, this approach will hurt you. While a tight labor market may cause you to lower your standards (one 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 compromises you are making compared with your usual requirements. Unwittingly hiring a serial embezzler is unlikely to solve your staffing problems and will certainly create plenty of other issues.

Fortunately, dental office jobs offer steady employment, good working hours, and the ability to help people in a health-care environment. There are lots of excellent people for whom the vacancy you are filling represents a great fit. The challenge is finding these people, and doing so in a compressed period. The strategies here will help, and should also increase your ability to screen applicants properly.

Editor's note: This article appeared in the January 2022 print edition of Dental Economics.

References 

1. Gurenlian JR, Morrissey R, Estrich CG, et al. Employment patterns of dental hygienists in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic. J Dent Hyg. 2021;95(1):17-24.

2. Harris D. Why dentists hire badly. Prosperident. May 31, 2017. https://www.prosperident.com/dentist-hire-badly/

3. Arnold C, Dimon J. Nearly 70 million Americans have criminal records. We must 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

About the Author

David Harris, MBA, CFE, CFF, CMA, CPA, FCPA

David Harris, MBA, CFE, CFF, CMA, CPA, FCPA, has the coolest job in dentistry: he gets to catch those who steal from dentists. A youthful rule-breaker, he uses his unrivaled understanding of the criminal thought process to help educate and protect dentists. Harris is CEO of Prosperident, a licensed private investigator, forensic CPA, certified fraud examiner, and the author of Dental Embezzlement: The Art of Theft and the Science of Control.

Updated April 29, 2022

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