Praising the clinical dental assistant

I have just finished reading a survey report by the American Dental Assistants Association (ADAA). The survey shows what I have believed for years ... that the clinical dental assistant is the most underappreciated member of the dental team. Clinical dental assistants are the most diversified members of the entire dental-health team. They have more contact with patients than any other member of the team (even the dentist). I always have believed that a patient is more likely to have a relationsh

Joe Blaes, DDS, Editor

e-mail: joeb@pennwell.com

I have just finished reading a survey report by the American Dental Assistants Association (ADAA). The survey shows what I have believed for years ... that the clinical dental assistant is the most underappreciated member of the dental team. Clinical dental assistants are the most diversified members of the entire dental-health team. They have more contact with patients than any other member of the team (even the dentist). I always have believed that a patient is more likely to have a relationship with the clinical dental assistant than with any other member of the team. In my office, when a new patient is scheduled, a clinical dental assistant is assigned to that patient. The purpose is to have the assistant and the patient establish a relationship based on mutual respect and trust. This patient becomes the assistant`s patient and is always scheduled with that clinical assistant.

I have seen many dental assistants introduced at dental meetings. The person they are being introduced to usually asks what they do in the office, and, when told, the doctor responds by saying, "Oh, you are just the assistant." When that happens, I want to rap them up on the side of the head! But I usually respond by saying, "Just the assistant! This is the most important person in the dental office!" I have seen a number of doctors who should know better than to make this same mistake! I wonder if they know how much they are hurting this very important person.

The clinical dental assistant works at the chair with the dentist, manages the schedule, oversees the treatment, consults with patients about treatment and maintaining their dental health, and frequently manages the business side of the practice as well. Clinical dental assistants purchase supplies (many times making recommendations about specific brands), purchase equipment, serve as laboratory technicians, maintain inventory, and maintain the expensive treatment equipment. They are photographers, they are peacekeepers, and they are generally the first ones called to clean up when a patient gets sick. They see their dentist at his best and sometimes at his worst. They agonize with their dentist over the difficult cases and, if we listen, sometimes come up with the best solution.

As I travel around the country, one of the big concerns that dentists have is how to recruit and retain good people. They tell of placing ads in papers and getting few, if any, responses. Welcome to the real world! Great staff people will become harder to find. We will be competing with every other service industry to find these people. Money can be a great motivator, but many people are looking for respect, responsibility, empowerment, trust, and praise.

Dentists often tell me that they have difficulty with delegation. They say it is often easier just to do it themselves than to train someone else. I agree; it is hard to do. One of the hardest things is not to step right in when a mistake is made. Let the person who made the mistake solve the resulting problem. The type of employee you are looking for is a leader, a self-managed person. These people need to be empowered, just as I have empowered my clinical dental assistants to be the relationship-builders in the office. So, instead of throwing instruments or having a temper tantrum, sit down with your clinical dental assistants and tell them how much you appreciate everything that they do. They will love you for it! Over the years, I have found that the way my team treats patients is mirrored by the way that I treat my team.

By the time you read this, the kids will be back in school and the fall season of meetings will be in full swing. I will be speaking in Provo, Utah; Kansas City and Cape Girardeau, Mo.; Winston-Salem, N.C.; New York City, Syracuse, and Buffalo, N.Y.; Providence, R.I.; Minneapolis, Minn.; Honolulu, Hawaii; New Orleans, La.; Pittsburgh, Pa.; Boston, Mass.; El Paso, Texas; and San Diego, Calif., during the next three months. I hope to see some of you there!

More in Practice