Something to smile about… Celebrating Dental Assistants

“Thanks for a great day”—such a simple phrase, such a huge impact. Have you thanked your dental assistant lately? Being acknowledged for a job well done always feels good.

Dental assistants are one of the hard working members of the team; able to multitask, organise, anticipate, and remain friendly—even when running late and the prospect of another ‘quick bite’ for lunch is looming. It is a rewarding but also fast-paced and demanding role.

Note—Oxford defines hard work as ‘a great deal of effort or endurance’, Webster defines hard working as ‘industrious, diligent. Effort, Endurance. Diligence. Industriousness. All very desirable qualities. And the very reason we need to celebrate dental assistants.

We also know that dental assistants sometimes feel like their role and contributions are not fully appreciated. Not only by their practice colleagues, but also sometimes by patients, and even their own family members. Recently an assistant mentioned a family member had commented “is that all you do, are you just an assistant?”

Sometimes I hear dental assistants say, “I’m just a DA”, somehow it seems to make the role less important than it is. Collectively we need to ensure the ‘just’ is replaced with a positive statement and elevate the profession. Dental assisting is an important role and career choice, but what it involves is not necessarily well understood. Many dental assistants are proud of their profession, as they should be.

Do you in fact have a NINJA by your side? (NINJA—No I’m Not Just an Assistant).

Recognising and celebrating your dental assistant is important as it gives an opportunity to highlight their hard work and contribution to successful clinical workflow. The positive contribution towards practice productivity and efficiency of everyday clinical workflow by the dental assistant is significant. There is an important value add contribution.

A dental assistant who understands clinical efficiency will be ‘worth their weight in gold’, as they say. It is true. Being able to assess clinical workflow to ensure every minute is as efficient as can be requires critical analysis and process driven thinking. Every task, no matter how big or small should be carefully reviewed to ensure it is being performed in the most time effective way.

Room changeover for example can be critical to appointment management and patient flow.

Instrument management should be performed with a balance of safety and efficiency in mind, with mechanical processes adhered to wherever possible. Several time and motion studies support the thinking that up to fifty minutes per dental assistant per day can be ‘saved’ when clinical workflow is streamlined. If you consider the hourly rate of your dental assistant over say 250 minutes (4 hours) a week, or 1000 minutes (16 hours) a month, this is likely a significant amount.

Every dental assistant is a champion for infection prevention and control, and one of them will take on the additional role responsibility of Infection Prevention Co-ordinator.

A reliable and focused team member ensuring sterilisation monitoring and documentation, validation requirements, waterline testing, product rationalisation, surface management, PPE, hand hygiene, clinical audits and policy & procedure manuals are all up to date and being implemented. That is absolutely something to smile about!

Induction and continuing education and training are critically important to support the dental assistant role. However, it is also true that there are some things that simply can’t be taught and need to be inherent qualities of an individual to excel in this role.

As always, asking for input from the ‘coal face’ can deliver pearls of wisdom. The common qualities dental assistants agree are most important include:

  1. Being a people person who likes to meet new people and can interact with a variety of people from different walks of life. Making patient comfort in every aspect a priority.
  2. Being a good listener—listening carefully to exactly what the patient is saying, when they might not actually be saying it, and lending an ear is essential!
  3. Showing kindness and having compassion. Given many patients are anxious, nervous, or scared, a dental assistant who can convey a calming presence and show empathy is very helpful.
  4. Ability to anticipate. Most dental assistants will tell you they need to be (and some are expected to be!) a mind reader. Dentists are amazed and impressed with how their dental assistant knows what they need, sometimes before they do!
  5. Perseverance and determination to get through the tricky days, and there are many.
  6. Reliability—a team managed approach requires everyone to be able to rely on one another. Some dental assistants joke that without them the practice just might fall apart—they’re kidding, (but not really).
  7. Organisation with a capital O! There is a need to be prepared for anything!
  8. Multitasking—Dental assistants say they do it all—and often they do it all at the same time!
  9. Dedication is required for the tough days, to help take a ‘rough day’ with a grain of salt—more resilient, less permanence. Dental assistants who are dedicated seem to know how to take it in their stride.
  10. Strong work ethic—sometimes the hours are long, and the breaks are not! Many dental assistants thrive on a busy and challenging day and find it rewarding and energizing!

Communication Queens and Kings. Dental assistants can be communication experts. Patients feel they can trust them, that they are on the same level as them. They are often the person who gets to talk to patients in a ‘different’ way.

‘We Know You’—Dental assistants often lower anxiety for many patients using a calming and friendly manner when they meet and greet patients, showing them you already know them by demonstrating ‘We Know You’ information gathered from patient notes.

The Daily Huddle should be run by the dental assistant, leading the huddle to keep everyone on the same page and ensure smooth-running of the clinical day.

Meeting and greeting—the domino effect; patient, assistant, clinician, front office…

Often it is the dental assistant who meets and greets patients. Using ‘We Know You’ information from the morning huddle, this is a good opportunity to build trust with the patient, showing you already know something about them, even (especially) if they are a new patient to the practice. Also, making a quality statement about the clinician they are about to meet further raises their profile of the next person they will meet; “Have you met Dr Jones yet?” “He is great, very gentle, and our patients love him. We are very lucky”.

When you introduce your dental assistant to the patient, what do you normally say? “This is Sarah” or could you say something different? Agree a quality statement with your dental assistant—what would they like you to say about them?

To create and support a seamless patient experience, the DA has an important role in doing handover to other team members in a smooth way.

Agree with the team other hand overs to use quality statements to build trust with the patient. Patients like to be in a practice where the team like each other. Patients have strong opinions and feedback about how the clinician and dental assistant interact with one another. It is very much noticed.

Prebrief and Debrief—What’s going to happen, what has happened (in ‘patient speak’).

In some practices dental assistants manage both the prebrief and the debrief with the patient to further elevate the role and to build trust with the patient.

The prebrief is a short introduction of what is going to happen today and a chance for the patient to ask questions before they meet with the clinician. Consider the positive impact on production when a clinician can start a procedure without 15-minutes being spent explaining the procedure of a root canal treatment, for example.

The debrief is a dental assistant and patient conversation held after sitting the patient up; a review of what has happened today, any post-op or home care instructions, what will happen at the next appointment, the importance of the next appointment, answer any questions and then returning the patient to front office for handover.

For this to be successful the dental assistant will require training and support, and the clinician needs to gain trust that it can be done appropriately. It may require a little give and take in the form of dental assistants taking the lead, and clinicians being sufficiently confident to let go for it to happen.

Practice and give feedback, start with a treatment you often do in the practice. Seek feedback from both from the patient and the front office. The more you can pre-empt with the patient, the less questions to answer for the front office.

Often patients nod and smile and tell the clinician they have understood everything that was explained. However, many patients are stressed in the situation and the behaviour might not necessarily demonstrate exactly what the patient really means. Once the patient is alone with the dental assistant they ask, “what did she/he say”? “I’m not sure I understood all of that. Can you help me to understand”?

Explaining once again by using dental terminology won’t help the patient to understand and often a more successful way of explaining is by using plain English and words that patients understand, describing the same thing. Discuss and use dental appropriate metaphors to train dental assistants to help patients understanding.

Recognise and reward… (it’s not always about money)

Being recognised as an important part of the dental team, receiving genuine respect, and being seen as a peer professional goes a long way to support our dental assisting colleagues.

Take the time to give praise and gratitude, maybe even a small treat and thankyou note. I personally still have thank you notes left for me over the years.

The rewards are many; appreciation from the patients, being a part of an oral care team, ability to upskill and be cross trained. Skills are learned to manage the challenges of difficult patients and/or colleagues, being able to adapt to assisting various scopes of practice and many technically specific procedures. As always, training is key.

Encourage networking and contact with other dental assistants, this collaboration with likeminded colleagues provides an opportunity to share ideas and clinical management skills.

We are currently seeing dental assistant shortages. This may in part be due to a lack of knowledge about the profession. We should raise awareness about the importance of the profession among the public, including patients and prospective assistants.

Let’s celebrate this amazing role, reinforce the career choice and the impact every dental assistant makes every day. They really do give you something to smile about—every day!

This article originally appeared in Volume 209, July 2022 of NZDA News.

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