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Promoting infection control practices in your dental office

April 1, 2020
Michelle Strange, MSDH, RDH, says that proper infection control and the right equipment may seem like a big investment initially, but you will soon start reaping the benefits—decreased costs for your practice and a new way to market to your community.

It’s all too common that we hear about dental infection control breaches in the media. This, coupled with hospitals highlighting good prevention measures for proper hand hygiene and distributing information about health-care-acquired infections, creates a breeding ground for patient paranoia. No wonder people are scared to go to the dentist!

Thinking a bit outside the box, however, we can turn this threat into an opportunity. Proper infection control and the right equipment may seem like a big investment at first, but once you start seeing the benefits of decreased costs (e.g., reduced lost hours due to staff illness and more) and envision this as a new way to market to your community, I think you’ll agree that it’s well worth your while. And if you don’t now, I expect you will after reading this article! Let’s take a look.

Why promote infection control?

In a world full of stress and worry, people require constant reassurance about many things in life. Going to the dentist is already high on a lot of people’s “fear lists,” particularly concerning pain—both perceived or real.1 Add in fears of poor oral hygiene or the chance of catching a health-care-acquired infection, and patients can spiral into a ball of nerves. 

In the 1980s, dental infection control became a real concern as people began to become aware of that new disease, HIV/AIDS. The dangers of transmitting the infection through poorly maintained equipment and low hygiene practices became a reality. 

Then, in the 1990s, a new worrying disease was added to the list: variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD). A wave of panic swept across the world, further enhancing already long-held fears of visiting the dentist. Was it possible to catch mad cow disease from cross-contamination at the dentist?

A 2006 study in Glasgow showed that while some patients understood the likelihood of catching vCJD or HIV from the dentist’s office was low, many were still not convinced. With 17% of survey respondents replying, “don’t know,” and 2% stating they thought it was very likely that infection could occur, there is still a long way to go in providing reassurance to the general public that infection control in dental practices is at a standard that protects them from cross-contamination.2

By effectively promoting your high standards of infection control, you can help alleviate this fear factor and give patients the confidence they need to choose your practice when they next need a dentist. Not only that, but placing a focus on proper infection control in your office can add to your bottom line: you significantly lower your risk for lawsuits, and your employees will be less susceptible to the upper respiratory illnesses that are so common among dental teams.3 So, while it can be expensive to implement and maintain such a high degree of infection control, it pays back in dividends. 

So, how do you convince the public that your dental practice takes infection control seriously and use your pristine hygiene standards to your advantage?

How to ensure your infection control measures are top-notch

The first step to creating public confidence in your infection control measures is actually to ensure that they are of the highest level. By taking your dental office hygiene seriously and instilling top-level infection control practices in your surgery, you can start to win the battle against patients’ negative perceptions. 

Begin with the basics (e.g., wearing protective clothing, gloves, and goggles) and adopting cleanliness practices (e.g., disinfection of all work surfaces and equipment) so that you can ensure a baseline level of hygiene. To really protect your practice, patients, staff, and, of course, yourself, you must devise and follow a fully developed hygiene and infection control standards policy at all times.4 

If you are at all unsure whether your practice is following proper infection control procedures, join a membership organization such as the Organization for Safety, Asepsis and Prevention (OSAP) that will provide you with a library of resources to help you create the safest dental visit for your patients. Another way to highlight the importance of good hygiene at your practice is to create a special staff role that has a laser-sharp focus on infection control.

What is an infection control coordinator?

In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines recommended that all dental practices have a team member to handle the management and coordination of the practice’s infection control and safety.5 The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the CDC support the designation of an infection control coordinator (ICC) for dental health-care settings. To maintain your high standards, consider choosing and appropriately training one of your staff members to take on the role of ICC. Make sure that person is thoroughly trained and kept up-to-date with changes in infection control policies by sending your ICC to conferences such as OSAP. 

While all members of your team must be fully cognizant of the importance of maintaining high standards for infection control and hygiene, it is the job of the ICC to ensure that there is full compliance. The ICC takes a leadership role regarding the implementation of protocols and ideally should be involved in the development of your infection control code of conduct.6 This role also entails managing the documentation, reports, and any other documents relevant to the protection of the practice from infection, including emergency plans and any legal or regulatory compliance documentation, among a host of other responsibilities. Having a fully trained, responsible ICC is something you can highlight in your marketing literature to show patients how seriously you take their health and safety. 

Promoting your infection control policies

When you have an ICC in place who ensures that your infection control policies are running smoothly, your next step is to let the world know that you take the health and safety of your patients very seriously. Some dental practices tend to downplay the risks of infection control by simply not talking about it, as they don’t want to scare their patients. But as patients become better informed, studies show that they are already pretty well aware of these risks and are even starting to speak up for themselves by challenging their dentists on their hygiene standards.7

Letting the public know that your office is a hygienic and infection-controlled zone will help them feel confident in your services. Put up posters, provide pamphlets and other materials explaining your infection control policies, and require your patients to fill out forms indicating their health issues at each visit. This will help to get your practice’s message out, but only inside the walls of your clinic. 

To reach a wider audience, try creating marketing material that highlights your high standards to let the public know that you take infection control issues very seriously. If your local or national dental authorities have infection control standards, sign up to them, hire a consultant to inspect your office and highlight areas for improvement, and promote memberships in programs such as OSAP to highlight your compliance with the highest levels of hygiene. Highlight the fact that you have hired consultants and are compliant with all standards, ensuring the safest possible dental visit for your patients. 

If you have a website or any other online presence, ensure that your infection control protocols and policies are front and center on your online materials. If you have a blog, create posts about how you maintain your standards, and disseminate information about how you are controlling outbreaks of any infections or diseases in your area. 

Share your high infection control standards on social media. Post a photo of your team running spore tests, or perhaps cleaning the autoclave, and wearing proper personal protective equipment (PPE). Take your online promotion a step further and create a video (maybe even a Facebook Live), telling your community the reason you ask your patients to wear safety glasses while they’re in your dental chair. 

By continually reiterating your standards, providing information on topical health events, and clearly communicating your dedication to providing a safe and hygienic environment, you have a new method to market your business to patients and potential patients. They can then see that you are committed to caring for every aspect of their dental health and safety. 

Help the public overcome their fears of going to the dentist by removing any insecurity regarding cross-contamination and offering them the safest dental visit as you continue to grow your successful practice.  

References

1. Beaton L, Freeman R, Humphris G. Why are people afraid of the dentist? Observations and explanations. Med Princ Pract. 2014;23(4):295-301. doi:10.1159/000357223

2. Smith AJ, Wilson SL, Read S, et al. Patients’ perception of infection prevention in dental practice. Am J Infect Control. 2014;42(3):337-339. doi:0.1016/j.ajic.2013.09.017

3. Baumann K, Boyce M, Catapano-Martinez D. Dental aerosols: the infection connection. Dimens Dent Hyg. 2018;16(10):12,14,16-17.

4. Infection Prevention and Control in Dental Practice. FDI World Dental Federation website. https://www.fdiworlddental.org/resources/policy-statements/infection-prevention-and-control-in-dental-practice. Updated September 2019.

5. Eklund KJ. Ensure safe practice with the infection control coordinator. Dimens Dent Hyg. 2019;17(1):22-25. https://dimensionsofdentalhygiene.com/article/infection-control-coordinator/. Published January 21, 2019.

6. Fluent M. Roles of the infection control coordinator. Inside Dent. 2017;13(6). https://www.aegisdentalnetwork.com/id/2017/06/roles-of-the-infection-control-coordinator.

7. Barnes S. Patient-centered care: understanding patient perception of surgical infection prevention technology. Infection Control Today website. https://www.infectioncontroltoday.com/operating-room/patient-centered-care-understanding-patient-perception-surgical-infection-prevention. Published March 17, 2019. Accessed January 9, 2020.

Michelle Strange, MSDH, RDH, has been a dental clinician since 2000 and is currently a practicing hygienist, speaker, writer, content developer, consultant, and podcast cohost for A Tale of Two Hygienists. With a master’s in dental hygiene education and a belief in lifelong learning, she hopes to continue to learn and grow within the dental profession and one day see the gap bridged between medicine and dentistry.
About the Author

Michelle Strange, MSDH, RDH

Michelle Strange, MSDH, RDH, has more than two decades of dental expertise, beginning as a dental assistant and completing a bachelor’s degree in health science from the Medical University of South Carolina and a master’s in dental hygiene education from the University of Bridgeport. She continues to invest in ongoing education, gaining certifications such as her Certificate in Dental Infection Prevention and Control. Her community and global endeavors demonstrate her passion for dentistry, from volunteer work to worldwide missions. She is the owner of Level Up Infection Prevention, MichelleStrangeRDH, a practicing dental hygienist, and was the cofounder and the fire and energy that made A Tale of Two Hygienists podcast.

Read Strange's DE Editorial Advisory Board profile here. 

Updated October 10, 2022

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