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From the editor’s desk: Why you’re leaving the dental assisting profession

July 24, 2020
Tija Hunter, CDA, wonders why her peers are choosing to move on from the profession. When she asked you all one question, "Why?" here's what you had to say, starting with, "We aren't paid what we're worth!"

I recently wrote a myth busters article about dental assistants leaving the profession in the wake of COVID-19. A lot of people read it and I received many emails. The emails ranged from praising me for talking about the issue to exasperation with me for not doing more to help. It seems that this subject is pretty emotional and needs some digging into.

I created a one-question survey for Facebook and shared it on several dental assisting pages to get a good idea of what is at the heart of the issue. The answers didn’t surprise me, but the comments are where you poured out your hearts.

I asked, What would make you leave the profession?”

The number one answer was lack of pay and benefits with 221 votes. Lack of respect for all we do came at number two with 168 votes. Wearing extra personal protective equipment during COVID-19 received 33 votes, which surprised me. I thought it would get more. And finally, professional advancement received 16 votes.

In your comments you mentioned pain, exhaustion, long hours, and burnout. Our profession has never been ergonomically correct. As hard as we try to sit up straight and balance our movement and inactivity, our profession has us all over the place. Just the positions we can get into to see what our dentists are doing in the oral cavity can be a cross between Cirque du Soleil and a high-wire balancing act!

Our days are unpredictable to say the least. The schedule can change every 20 minutes. We must take care of ourselves and do what we can not to destroy our bodies in the name of dentistry. When we’re young, we don’t think too much about physical exertion. But as we age, all of the improper ways we sit and stand take their toll. With long days and improper ergonomics, we can burn out fast and compromise our health. Stretch! Wear supportive shoes! Do what you can to sit up straight and sit down properly! This will truly make a huge difference in your day, your life, and your career!

What else did you want to discuss?

Speaking of burnout, there was a lot of discussion about all of the extra PPE we’re now required to wear all day long. Some of you are exhausted to the point of becoming weak and dizzy and collapsing and fainting. Many of don your mask when you walk in the door and don’t take it off until you leave. This alone will take a toll on you. N95 respirators are meant to be worn when aerosols are generated, so when you’re not sitting chairside, take that thing off! You need to breathe! Depriving yourself of oxygen when it’s not necessary will make your long days even longer. If you can, step in and relieve your teammates. Check on them to make sure they’re OK. They’ll return the favor.

Respect, something dental assistants feel they receive little of, was voted number two. Wearing the extra PPE, standing on our heads, working long hours, and doing what feels like everything in the back office wears on us. Sometimes, a simple “Thank you,” “I appreciate you,” or pat on the back can go a long way to reinforce appreciation for all we do. Thank your teammates for all they do each and every day. Start each day with an attitude of being grateful, even when it’s hard, and you can help create an atmosphere you want to be in. It’s truly contagious!

Of course, the number one answer was pay. So many of you feel that you’re not paid enough for all that is required of you, and rightfully so. A lot is expected of us. Our doctors need us, our patients need us, and our teammates need us. And now, we’re required to PPE up and look like NASA spacemen and still smile. It’s not just pay, but benefits matter too. Things like paid days off, paid holidays, and sick days are benefits many dental assistants do not have.

Other benefits that make a big difference are paid uniforms, health insurance, a retirement plan, and no-cost dental treatment for employees and their families. (I’m always very surprised when a dentist doesn’t offer this.) If any of these things are important to you, negotiate them. In an job interview, remember that you’re not just there to be interviewed, you are there to interview them as well. Ask questions. Make a list and if they don’t offer any of these benefits, ask for them. If they won’t budge, then make sure the pay, hours worked, and location of the practice are attractive to you.

If you’re going in for a review with your current employer, and a raise does not seem possible, try asking for more paid days off or vacation pay. And then there’s the pay itself. It’s so hard to know what to ask for, be it in an interview or with a current employer. Make a list of everything you do, and I mean everything that you do. Take time to make your list because I promise, if you go in armed with this and sell yourself, you have a good chance of succeeding.

Professional advancement is a concern for some of you, and to them I say, the sky is the limit! You are only slowed down by your own imagination. There are so many avenues that you can create once you have a solid background in dentistry.

I don’t have all of the answers for how to get the things you want, but I do know this—each of us must take what we have and make it the best it can be. Nobody walks in your shoes. Nobody does what you do every day. So, take care of yourself, both physically and mentally. Work hard but make sure you are compensated for it. If you aren’t appreciated where you are, there are other places that will want you. Don’t leave the profession; leave a toxic environment. Remove negativity from your life and smile more!

You are amazing! Always remember that!

Tija Hunter, CDA, EFDA, CDIA, CDSO, CDSH, MADAA, is a member and current vice president of the American Dental Assistants Association (ADAA), where she holds the honor of Master. Tija is the editor of Dental Assisting Digest and contributes to Dental Economics magazine. She is the director of the Dental Careers Institute, a dental assisting and dental continuing education program, and the author of seven continuing education study courses. She is an international speaker and a certified trainer in nitrous oxide in several states. She can be reached at [email protected].