Adapting to today’s many changes in dental assisting

May 20, 2020
Like their fellow dental professionals, dental assistants are adapting to the new normal, says ADAA president Robynn Rixse. DAs have been helping each other through the crisis and will support their practices as necessary.

It’s been more than two months since the American Dental Association (ADA) put forth its recommendations for dentists nationwide to postpone elective procedures as a way to help mitigate the spread of coronavirus. During this time those of us in the dental assisting profession have been faced with significant challenges. Our profession includes clinical and business assistants, dental assisting educators and students, and dental assistants who serve administratively. One benefit that has been apparent throughout this crisis is the ability of dental assistants to be flexible and adaptable to best navigate the ever-evolving situation created by the pandemic.

For some assistants, challenges came in the form of layoffs, furloughs, or reduced hours. Navigating the unemployment system has not been an easy process for those seeking benefits, and it continues to provide new challenges for many. In a variety of forums, dental assistants have rallied around each other to share answers to common questions and provide support and encouragement.

Many assistants have taken this time to make a difference by helping others while some have used the downtime to continue their educations. This is of particular importance as we learn more about the impact that COVID-19 will have on the way we practice dentistry. Stakeholders across the dental assisting community have stepped forward to provide courses in a variety of formats. As dental offices create plans to reopen, dental assistants can help by sharing their newfound knowledge.

For clinical assistants who have been able to work, the challenge includes a change from elective treatment to providing emergency/urgent care for their patients. For clinical assistants, this raised questions related to the personal protective equipment (PPE) required and concerns over the ensuing shortage of supplies due to the demand for these products. A focus on infection control practices, especially in light of the findings regarding the risk of exposure related to aerosols, has garnered a lot of attention as well.

In recognition of the important role that dental assistants play in infection control, the American Dental Assistants Association (ADAA) is working on legislative and regulatory efforts for statewide mandatory education. You can read the letter they sent to their members here

Assisting students and office managers

As the crisis ensued, many dental assisting schools closed and moved to online formats in response to state mandates associated with shelter-in-place orders. With the online format, dental assisting educators have been challenged with adapting their curriculums to meet this new format, especially in terms of fulfilling the clinical requirements needed to graduate. They’ve navigated this challenge by turning to organizations within the dental assisting education community.

Webinars, town hall meetings, and a variety of other resources have been made available to help dental assisting programs adapt and ensure that dental assisting students not only finish their programs but receive the best education possible in spite of the current challenges. It may not be easy, but by sharing ideas and insight and working together, everyone can succeed.

Dental assistants serve as office and practice managers in many practices. For them, the challenges during this time include the need for a change in the screening process prior to bringing patients into the office in order to reduce the risk of exposure for staff and patients. These screening tools will be an integral part of the business assistants’ responsibilities moving forward.

The experience and knowledge they bring to their positions is especially critical at this time. An understanding of clinical care will help as these managers develop plans to reopen their offices and put controls in place to help protect patients and staff. Practice/office managers in many states are implementing ideas such as installing plexiglass in the front office area and air filtration systems and ultraviolet lights to help reduce exposure to aerosols. Extra effort is being taken to locate hard-to-find PPE, including n95 and surgical masks, disposable gowns, and face shields.

Dental assistants, regardless of their positions, play a key role in helping the dental assisting community adapt to the changes that we’re experiencing in this new reality of dental care. I know that we’re up to the challenges if we all work together.

Robynn Rixse, BS, CDA, EFDA, MADAA, is the practice manager for Buehler Family Dental in New Holland, Pennsylvania. She is the current president of the American Dental Assistants Association and has been involved with dental assisting for more than 30 years. She became a certified dental assistant and expanded functions assistant in 2011, earned her ADAA Fellowship in 2013, and her ADAA Mastership in 2018. Robynn graduated summa cum laude with a BS in health-care administration in 2019 and was inducted into the Chi Epsilon chapter of Alpha Sigma Lambda the same year.

Editor's note: To view DentistryIQ's full coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, including original news articles and video interviews with dental thought leaders, visit the DentistryIQ COVID-19 Resource Center.