3 skills every dental assistant should have

By Kevin Henry, DrBicuspid.com editor in chief

October 24, 2019 -- Dental assistants are often the unsung heroes of the practice. A dental assistant who is empowered and engaged every day can make a difference between the practice barely hitting its numbers and the one bypassing its goals.

I have been fortunate over the past 15 years to speak to dental assistants around the world on ways that they can be empowered, enlightened, and educated, as well as ways that they can impact the bottom line of the practice. Let's face it, dental practices that are run like a business, with every employee empowered to make as big of an impact on the bottom line of the business as possible, will often succeed where others struggle.

Kevin Henry
Kevin Henry.

In my experience, dental assistants in every practice should possess three key skills. Of course, there are always more than three that can set dental assistants apart on the scale from OK to amazing. However, these three skills are ones that every dentist should want their assistant to have and also skills that assistants always crave to have as a part of their armamentarium.

Also, please keep in mind as I discuss these skills and what dental assistants can do in the dental practice that every state has different laws for what these assistants can or can't do legally in the operatory. It's always a good idea to refresh your knowledge of these skills -- to protect you and your practice. An easy way to see these laws for each state is to go to the Dental Assisting National Board's website and click on the Meet State Requirements tab at the top of the page. From there, you can click on individual states and download a PDF that will list the opportunities for each assistant in each state and also their legal do's and don'ts by which they must abide.

Skill 1: Case presentation

There is no question that the dentist is the lead clinician in the practice. However, he or she is often seen as the person who is indirectly asking for money from the patients.

Don't get me wrong. Dentists are prescribing what they think is best for the patient. However, patients can sometimes wonder if they really need that crown, for example, or if the dentist is just looking to beef up his or her billfold. We know that is very often not the case, but I know through countless patient surveys that this is often a thought that pops into the patient's mind when the dentist is talking about next steps in the patient's oral health journey.

So we often have a world where the dentist doesn't like to think that he or she is "selling something," and we have a patient who is wary about spending money just because the doctor says a crown is needed. It can lead to a stifling dynamic, but this is where the dental assistant fits beautifully into the equation.

The dental assistant is often viewed as a trusted confidant by the patient. The doctor may very well prescribe the crown and then leave the room. That's when the patient turns to the dental assistant and says, "What do you think?" I've seen it happen, and I've had numerous assistants tell me this has been a part of their day.

This is where the assistant has the chance to shine. He or she can explain to the patient exactly why the crown is needed (including showing radiographs, etc.) while also emphasizing that the doctor always has the patient's best interests at heart. The assistant can explain why the treatment is necessary and also even bring up the availability of third-party financing or other methods to make sure the patient understands there are more reasons to say "yes" than "no."

Of course, the assistant will need to have confidence when this happens and a firm grasp of what was just discussed and the potential next steps. However, an assistant who can be the second voice for the doctor and even potentially start the conversation around money and financing for the front desk can be an invaluable link between not only the patient and the practice but also between the clinical and administrative teams as well.

Skill 2: The ability to listen

Yes, it's absolutely important for the assistant to be able to discuss a case with a patient. However, there is so much more to working with patients than just that.

My 75-year-old mom visits her local dentist twice a year, just like she is supposed to do. She loves her dentist and the care that she provides. However, my mom will often tell me about the great conversations she has with the dental assistant before and after her visit.

“Elevating these three skills in your practice will make a difference in your bottom line and day-to-day operations.”

Please understand that my mom is a "talker" and loves to tell stories about her granddaughter or some of the latest gossip in her small town. To her, relationships matter. The fact that the dental assistant listens to her stories means the world to her.

Listening to my mom and other patients like her is such an important skill for assistants. Like I said in my last point, patients feel a kindred spirit often with the assistant. So many assistants have told me about the relationships they have built with their patients simply because they took a few moments to listen to their concerns or stories. Those relationships matter for the bottom line of the business. They keep your customers coming back.

But listening isn't just used when it comes to patients. It has to be used throughout the day in working with teammates as well. Remember, communication isn't just about talking. It's also about receiving the message the other person is trying to convey.

As a dentist, it's critical that your team members understand the mission of your practice and the goals you have for your business. Share these ideas with them and then follow up one on one with each team member to ask them if they have questions and if they understand how they fit into that mission. It's a good way to see if they're listening and also to listen to any questions or concerns they may have.

If you feel as if your message isn't getting through or your assistants aren't listening to the needs of your patients, don't be afraid to pursue having them learn some communication skills through a consultant or continuing education course. The investment you make in this will be beneficial with your patients and to your interpersonal communication within the practice as well.

Skill 3: The desire to learn

"Well, that's not the way we did it at my previous job."

"We tried that once. It didn't work."

Those are two of the worst phrases that can be uttered in any business, including a dental practice. Dental assistants can be taught a number of skills, including new techniques or using the latest technology. But for anything to be taught, the student has to be willing to learn and then apply what he or she has learned. Sadly, I've seen many practices struggle with this when it comes to their team members.

I believe that we as human beings should always be willing to try new things and learn new skills to improve ourselves. However, learning sometimes pulls us out of our comfort zone -- and that is something that is troublesome to some people.

So how do you make sure your dental assistants are willing to learn? I've asked assistants for years what they are looking for when it comes to trying something new in the practice. The overwhelming No. 1 question I am told that assistants want answered about something new is "Why?"

It's not that they are questioning the motives behind a purchase or a change in philosophy. Rather, they are wanting to know how this change will affect them, what they do, and the efficiency of the practice. Often, a learning curve comes with something new in the practice, so be sure to communicate why the change is happening and your expectations with it.

When assistants understand the reasoning behind a change, they are much more willing to embrace it and want it to succeed. The ability and desire to learn are often there, but it has to be awakened sometimes through communication.

Tell the assistant how he or she fits into the plan and you will often get much better buy-in than just saying, "This is how we're going to do things from now on."

Yes, a quality dental assistant must embrace plenty of skills. However, elevating these three skills in your practice will make a difference in your bottom line and day-to-day operations.

Your dental assistants want to be empowered and believe they are a part of your team. Working with them on these skills will show them you are invested in them as people and as critical members of the success of your business.


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