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Dental labor shortages are a new normal: 5 ways to increase efficiencies

June 17, 2022
What can dental practices do to adjust to new norms as staffing strains continue? Eric Giesecke, MBA, suggests five new ways to adapt and thrive.

Dental offices lost 1,500 jobs between February and March 2022,1 underscoring the reality that no health-care sector is immune to the Great Resignation. And while most dental practices say they’re managing, more than 90% of dentists recruiting dental hygienists say it has been extremely or very challenging, and nearly 90% of dentists indicate the same for recruiting dental assistants, according to recent figures from the American Dental Association (ADA) Health Policy Institute (HPI).1

This raises questions for solo as well as multilocation practices that want to stay profitable. For example: How can dental practices better retain their staff? And what will dental practices need to do to attract the right future talent?

But the most important question is this: What can dental practices do to adapt to new norms as staffing strains continue?

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How staffing challenges are affecting dental practices

The pandemic only exacerbated the ongoing hiring crisis in the dental industry, impacting practices of all sizes. Solo practices stand out for having the most significant capacity challenges. More than 80% of owner dentists who are currently hiring are finding the recruitment of dental hygienists and dental assistants to be extremely or very challenging, according to ADA figures.2

But it’s not just the hiring of dental professionals that’s making news. More than 70% of owner dentists have said recruitment of administrative staff is extremely or very challenging too. Larger group practices and dental service organizations (DSOs) alike continue to experience hiring challenges for dental professionals and administrative staff; the majority find recruiting challenging.

In turn, these shortages are contributing to an 11% reduction in practice capacity.3 While this is still an improvement over 2020 and 2021 figures, it’s not ideal. If a practice generates $1 million per year, a loss of 11% in productivity amounts to a loss that exceeds $100,000 in production. Or, if a dental practice must pay a higher salary to attract a hygienist or dental assistant who has multiple job offers, it has less money to put toward other business needs.

Then there’s the impact on patients. If a practice must reduce capacity, it could potentially hurt its ability to accommodate patients with the same frequency, noted three ADA HPI members in a January 2022 article in Dental Economics.4

Offsetting the impact of staffing challenges

Given that dental staffing challenges are expected to continue in the near term, dental practices will need to adapt to avoid financial setbacks. Here are five ways to enhance efficiencies and streamline workflows so practices can maximize their dental care with smaller staffs.

  1. Schedule smarter. The HPI survey data noted that the biggest driver of lower-than-optimal patient volumes is patient cancellations, followed by trouble filling vacant staff positions. Smarter scheduling practices—such as applications that enable online scheduling, appointment reminders, and cancellation prompts—can alleviate one of these problems. Smarter scheduling (and schedule filling automation) tools also make it easier for dental practices to have a bird’s eye view. These tools can help you see where there will be gaps in the schedule, so staff can be reallocated to locations that need extra support.
  2. Ditch paper altogether. It’s not just clinical paperwork that saps time from patient encounters, potentially increases security risks, and makes it harder to manage care. It’s all the paperwork—billing and remittance forms, paper copies of images, and paper-based scheduling systems. Cloud-based dental office management platforms have evolved, and there’s no better time to transition dental team members to electronic systems. The right dental practice management software creates efficiencies, helps practices stay organized, and protects patients’ health information. Using a cloud-based system enables staff to access information in or out of the office, which is a huge time-saver if they need to change their schedule, update records, or view x-rays while out of the office.
  3. Streamline patient care systems. Many dentists use two or more systems for all their practice management and clinical care needs. While this is better than using paper records, it slows down workflows and makes the process of updating or retrieving information more cumbersome. Using a consolidated platform makes it easier to toggle between schedules, patient notes, and applications such as messaging, which decreases administration time overall and facilitates billing and patient care. For DSOs that manage multiple locations, having one single practice management solution makes it easier to centralize and manage clinical and business operations.
  4. Enhance outreach and communications. The process of improving efficiencies extends to communications—i.e., how dental practices connect with and engage with patients influences everything from patient retention (including cancellations) to ensuring patients have their health plan information submitted prior to their office visit. Ideally, the dental software platform a practice uses includes patient-facing features such as text messaging, which can help office teams communicate with patients in the way they prefer. Text messaging apps can support practices in a variety of ways, such as filling late cancellations, confirming appointments, or alerting patients to updates in their medical record.
  5. Double down on burnout prevention. Practices always need to keep staff levels from dropping even lower by ensuring their employees and contractors are happy. That’s why taking decisive steps to mitigate health-care worker burnout is more important than ever. The 2021 Dentist Well-Being Survey Report5 revealed that the percentage of dentists diagnosed with anxiety more than tripled in 2021 compared with 2003, which makes it unsurprising that many dental professionals left the industry at the height of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021.

Employers can buffer the impact of the burnout trend by identifying the triggers that affect workers (e.g., inconsistent hours, lack of empathy, and staff support) through an employee survey. This will help them to decide which interventions, such as making workloads more efficient or automating certain processes, they should prioritize.

Looking to the future

While staffing shortages are expected to continue for the foreseeable future, improving efficiencies, streamlining technology systems/platforms, boosting patient communication, and raising employee satisfaction can help offset these shortages. In turn, by making changes to reduce the impact of staffing losses, dental practices will be better positioned to thrive in an increasingly competitive market in the future.


  1. Harrison B. HPI: Dental office employment declined in March. American Dental Association. Health Policy Institute. April 10, 2022. https://www.ada.org/publications/ada-news/2022/april/hpi-dental-office-employment-declined-in-march
  2. Versaci MB. Understaffed and ready to hire, dentists face applicant shortages as they emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. American Dental Association. June 9, 2021. https://www.ada.org/publications/ada-news/2021/june/dentists-face-applicant-shortages-as-they-emerge-from-covid-19-pandemic
  3. Economic outlook and emerging issues in dentistry. Insights from data from February 2022. American Dental Association. Health Policy Institute. 2022. https://www.ada.org/-/media/project/ada-organization/ada/ada-org/files/resources/research/hpi/feb2022_hpi_economic_outlook_dentistry_slides.pdf
  4. Fosse C, Morrissey R, Vujicic M. The staffing shortage is limiting dentistry’s recovery. What’s next? Dental Economics. January 16, 2022. https://www.dentaleconomics.com/practice/article/14214763/the-staffing-shortage-is-limiting-dentistrys-recovery-whats-next
  5. Burger D. Association tackles mental health with sense of urgency. American Dental Association. May 9, 2022. https://www.ada.org/publications/ada-news/2022/may/association-tackles-mental-health-with-sense-of-urgency

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Through the Loupes newsletter, a publication of the Endeavor Business Media Dental Group. Read more articles and subscribe to Through the Loupes.