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Dental Assistant Part 5: Your Secret Weapon for Positive Perception edited by Kevin Wilson

Posted on March 29, 2021 at 2:15 PM


Dental Assistant  Part 5: Your Secret Weapon for Positive Perception

edited by Kevin Wilson

Universal Adapter and Unsung Hero


The dental assistant is arguably the ‘go-to gal’ (or guy!) for the majority of things that need to be prepared before, or handled during the patient office visit. Need an X-ray? A room cleaned? Problem solved? The dentist, dental hygienists, and office staff all have very specific roles to play; the assistant does everything else. While this might seem intuitive given that the word ‘assistant’ is in the job title, the position is anything but simple, and depending on the practice there may be no task they aren’t somehow involved with.


Anyone who disagrees can look at the COVID-19 crisis. Perhaps no position among the dental office staff experienced as significant an escalation of their level of responsibility as the dental assistant. In addition to their usual duties—with elevated risk, and greater challenges every step of the way—the job of facilitating caregiver operations had a dozen more steps added to it. This is why there has been a shortage of qualified candidates, and a need for dentists and practice owners to make sure they hold on to good ones. Although the exact duties of the dental assistant vary from office to office, and even within a single practice setting, in the end, they need to be ready for anything. There is no aspect of patient care that they’re not somehow involved in, and nothing they won’t be called upon to help with.


Regardless of their duties, there are key qualities that assistants must bring to the table and continue to cultivate in any practice. Without a helper’s attitude, they will be sunk because there’s nothing worse than an assistant who can’t find something to do when the hygienist needed help five minutes ago and a room needs to be prepped for the next patient. Maintaining professional bearing while managing a wide variety of tasks takes experience, but this is an area that separates the wheat from the chaff, especially when the pace picks up—and the more duties they have, the more can go wrong if they implode. Thus, organizational skills are also a must; these can be trained through established routines and protocols. The quality of being detail-oriented was important before COVID-19, now it is absolutely essential.


Willingness to adapt to the personal styles of those they assist will make everyone’s life easier. For one thing, it’s their job—don’t make it harder for them than it has to be, but given the roles of caregiver and assistant, who has to adapt to whom should be abundantly clear. Not only does acceptance of this reality and a good professional attitude keep things moving in the right direction, it saves the assistant a lot of trouble because there’s no point feeling like a victim. Bear in mind, this is not an attempt to demean or lord over them as ‘lowly and unworthy,’ and every assistant should feel valued and respected at all times. This is more about individual character, knowing and accepting one’s role, and being realistic about expectations each impacting the quality of their work life. Every dentist wants a little something different from the chairside assistant, each assistant has their own strengths and quirks, but to the patient, they should look like a well-oiled machine.


While the dental assistant’s relationship with patients may not be as deep as those of other caregivers in the office, it is both unique and essential, so a personable disposition is probably the most valuable attribute of a good assistant. On the surface level, they may be the friendly face that transitions patients from the waiting room to the treatment room. Their demeanor sets the tone; considering the reputation of dental patients as being more fearful and less compliant than those of other specialties, this can make or break an office visit. Their sensitivity to the patient's needs and mood can give a helpful heads-up to whoever follows them—this will come in handy regularly.


Moreover, because the assistant isn’t necessarily seen as a caregiver the way hygienists and dentists are, they present inherent neutrality and often play the role of patient confidant. They don’t need much social savvy to do this. Patients—especially nervous ones—will often open right up and share a previously unspoken need or fear. The quiet ones can be artfully revealed as well by an experienced or naturally empathic assistant. This bridges the gap between the caregivers and the patient when there are extenuating or embarrassing circumstances in play, which in the dental setting is quite common.


As such, nobody needs to believe in the skills of the caregivers in the practice more than the dental assistant. Their confidence and trust in the caregivers will establish the necessary atmosphere of professional poise and fluid teamwork during any procedure, and they’re the ones in the best position to influence the patient when nobody else is around. This allows them to reassure and encourage, which may improve the likelihood of treatment plan acceptance.


Making an assistant feel like the valued team member they should be is not difficult. Overall, the effort you put into crafting and maintaining a relationship-based practice will allow the dental assistant to be comfortable in a difficult, thankless job. While they may be viewed by some as the ‘fast food cashier’ of the dental industry, do not allow them to feel that way and do not pay them that way, either. Often, the most important aspects of this are regular verbal, as well as practical, measures that demonstrate gratitude for the essential role they play. Thoughtful gestures and timely, honest words can go a long way. There is no substitute for giving proper respect to the people who take care of you, who make it possible for you to focus on your work by doing everything else.


This article is the fifth in a series covering aspects to harnessing the unique and powerful potential in developing a relationship-oriented dental practice. The next few articles will continue to delve more deeply into each of the different staff positions within the practice, followed by articles oriented toward surmounting the challenges that practices face building and maintaining relationships that help your practice thrive.


The next article will provide perspective on the true backbone of every thriving dental practice, the dental hygienist.

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