Dentistry Huddle

7 Tested Strategies for Overcoming Dental Staffing Challenges in 2024

We drill into the key factors that have influenced the labor shortage in the dental industry, and provide several strategies to navigate hiring challenges.

7 Tested Strategies for Overcoming Dental Staffing Challenges in 2024

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The State of Dental Staffing in 2024

66% of dental practices report that staffing was their number one hindrance and priority in 2023.

It’s not a surprise that even though the COVID pandemic is in the rear-view mirror, the ripple effects from the health crisis are still felt in the dental industry.

Fewer than half of dental hygienists and dental assistants who left employment during COVID returned to the workforce in 2021. This represents an estimated 3.75% of dental professionals, including a permanent 1.6% who left due to retirement or a career change.

To make matters worse, a downward trend in accredited dental assisting programs that started prior to the pandemic showed a 7% drop in first-year enrollment in dental hygiene programs nationwide in the 2020-21 academic year

The impact of these dynamics is obvious.

According to the ADA's report, "Economic Outlook and Emerging Issues in Dentistry", only 68% of US practices claim that they are adequately staffed with dental assistants, hygienists, and administrative staff.

Looking ahead McKinsey & Co. projects that the industry in the U.S. will be short more than 36,000 dental professionals by 2031.

This labor shortage impacts DSO members too, as high staff turnover can raise operational costs.

All of this while demand for dental services is surging.

A Health Affairs report indicates that national dental patient demand and expenditures has been increasing by over 4-5% year over year for the past 3 years. 

The pie for oral healthcare continues to grow, and patients are making more consumer-driven decisions fueled by a surge in awareness about the connection that dental care has with overall health.

To address these staffing issues, practices and DSOs are doubling down on efforts to recruit talent to fill positions crucial to production.

But there is a web of obstacles practices encounter when recruiting today.

Attracting talent is more difficult than ever, where factors like wage pressure are exacerbated by inflation. Doctor’s are also paying more for supplies and services and seldom have the resources to offer competitive offers.

According to the Health Policy Institute at the ADA, the expected wages for dental assistants and hygienists has outpaced that of other dental professionals by about 4%.

With an expectation for raising wages, how do you keep overhead costs from skyrocketing? How do you account for higher salaries contributing heavily to overhead, tying up resources to expand staff. It’s a pervasive and complicated problem with very situational solutions.

So how do we fix this problem? There is a labor shortage, it’s too expensive to hire, overhead costs are climbing, yet patient demand is rising.

Let’s get into some potential solutions for your practice.

Strategies for Dental Hiring Success

Let’s map out approaches for how practices can address these persistent staffing issues.

1. Software Automation

One strategy we endorse is leveraging automation for tasks that either require the most time or the most amount of training. The idea is to be pareto efficient, where you use automation software to cover the 20% of these tasks that represent 80% of the effort and time.

So what would this look like for a standard practice?

While it isn’t possible to replace or supplement your hygienists or dental assistants with technology (yet!), areas ripe for software assistance are RCM, marketing, and other administrative tasks.

Within RCM, using software tools like Pearly can ease administrative burdens and can lower patient billing costs. This then opens the budget for other hiring needs.

2. Outsourcing

Outsourcing certain non-clinical tasks is another effective solution. By partnering with specialized companies or individuals, dental practices can delegate tasks such as insurance verification, billing, and collections. 

This not only ensures that these activities are handled but also allows existing staff members to focus on their core responsibilities.

There are also temp programs for primarily hygienists that allow practices to effectively “rent” staff to fill chairs in times of a labor shortage.

The main caveat with this approach is the lack of accountability. Losing core competencies from your organization means that quality control can be difficult, if not impossible.

3. Dental Staffing Agencies

Partnering with a staffing agency is another viable approach to address hiring difficulties.

These agencies specialize in recruiting and placing qualified dental professionals, including hygienists, assistants, and front office staff. 

By relying on their expertise, dental practices can find suitable candidates to fill vacancies promptly and efficiently. These agencies also have access to channels that allow for signal boosting your hiring needs.

4. Casting A Broader Net

If you want to go it alone, consider broadening your hiring channels to cast a wider net.

Leverage social media (mostly LinkedIn) to attract actively prospecting professionals. The added benefit of this approach is that the “social” element allows for more transparency on both sides of the recruiting process.

5. Cross-Training

Cross-training existing staff is another strategy to consider. By providing opportunities for employees to learn and perform additional roles, practices can adapt to the staffing shortage. For example, a dental assistant could receive training to also perform administrative tasks or assist with more complex procedures, thus maximizing staff capabilities.

6. Educational Program Prospecting

An interesting hiring approach from Dr. Ali Saad of Prime Dentistry provides a path to achieving this for most practices. By affiliating with some dental educational programs and helping them navigate the gap between the program and the workforce, they position themselves in a pipeline that gives them an edge in hiring.

This approach also gives prospect employees insights into the workflow within private practices, as a component of their initiative is shadowing within our practices.

If the goal is to both fill positions and provide a fulfilling professional experience, this strategy (while time-intensive) covers all bases.

Our Best Advice

While attracting new professionals to your practice is one side of the equation to address the shortage, the other side is maintaining effective strategies to retain and secure your current staff.

At the end of the day, the current scarcity means that your current staff may be targeted by headhunters and competitive job offers. It’s up to you to cultivate a professional atmosphere and provide incentives (dental benefits, paid holidays, paid vacation, and retirement savings, CE funding, etc) that keeps staff on board with your practice. 

As reported in an ADA survey of over 9,000 dental professionals, one of the top three drivers for the staffing turnover is a toxic or unfulfilling environment. This element is something well within the control of all practices.

Create a culture of continuous learning and growth and provide employees with the opportunities to expand their knowledge and skills. 

7. Give them a career, not just a job.

This dynamic will not only benefit them individually but also enhances your organization's capabilities as a whole.

Find out if Pearly is right for your practice.

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