21st century workplace skills for the dental assistant

Dental assistants need to keep the spirit of Dental Assistants Recognition Week alive all year

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During Dental Assistants Recognition Weekin March, dental assistants celebrated the theme “Dental Assisting – Embracing the Changes of the Profession.” It was a great time for dental assistants to consider the tools we will need as our profession moves forward, even if they are tools that may not have been considered very important or relevant to the practice of dental assisting in the past. Workplace skills for dental assistants will require more than clinical applications, and we must start thinking more like business people than employees.

When we look at the elements of a “job,” employees tend to just show up, do a job, get paid, and consider themselves, dare I say, “just a dental assistant.” Compare this to the elements of the professional dental assistant — this is a vocation that requires an education and continual learning, and we educate others, create smiles, and impact people’s lives. We need to get out of the mindset that we are “just dental assistants,” and quit sucking spit and begin talking dentistry.

Dental practices are companies, and companies are in the business to make money, therefore, staff must become businesspeople and not employees. Employees do as they are told, while businesspeople figure out what needs to be done and they do it. Businesspeople are peak performers and they look at what is possible and what they are willing to change. They ask questions and enjoy the process. Businesspeople bear full responsibility for their actions, while employees don’t. Businesspeople know they are accountable for results and accountable to each other. Employees are not expected to see or understand the big picture; businesspeople know they must, and they will.

Given the expectations of the professional dental assistant, what are the 21st century workplace skills that we need to incorporate?

Interpersonal communication – How are you communicating with yourself and your team? You must be able to communicate with yourself effectively first so that your message to others doesn’t die on your lips.
Self-motivation – This is the ability to create value for yourself in the practice. It is said that dental assistants do not produce, but in actuality the doctor and hygienist cannot produce without the dental assistant. This is known as “keeping one step ahead of the doctor.” Being prepared, having the same set-ups in each room, directing the doctor, knowing when and how to ask for training, and showing the doctor how your expanded functions create more time all relate to the overall production of the practice. How you are able to make a difference in the delivery of quality dental treatment is the difference between being a productive member of the dental team or not.
Conflict resolution – Nobody likes confrontation, so it is important to know how to handle the uncomfortable situations that inevitably occur. Conflicts occur due to an unmet expectation, it is as simple as that. You need to be able to find the source of the situation and handle it elegantly, otherwise there is resentment and blame.
Salesmanship of yourself and your product – What makes you special in what you do in the practice? We all have distinct talents. Promoting what you do best sets you apart, and is what elevates you to professionalism.
The ability to give presentations – Does being asked to give a presentation make you weak at the knees? Does the thought speaking in public terrify you? Do you realize that every time you speak to a patient you are giving a presentation? It’s true! Become comfortable speaking even in small groups as this will be a tool that will always be important; it brings it all back to communication.

There are a multitude of opportunities for dental assistants today that were not available just a few short years ago. Dental assisting professionals are employed not only as chairside assistants and business assistants, but also as educators, practice management consultants, insurance representatives, sales representatives, and researchers. Being confident and self-assured is what promotes professionalism in the workplace. Do not assume anything, therefore, do not be afraid to ask the doctor what a good job looks like, have a checklist in place during the learning process, keep notes, ask questions, and be willing to listen and accept that there may be a different way of achieving the desired results.

It’s time for us to elevate our profession. Be organized, creative, and inventive, stay educated, ask questions, be committed, take charge where appropriate, and know enough about everyone else’s position in the practice to be supportive. Ask yourself as a dental assistant professional where you want to see yourself and your profession? If you don’t like the answers, you need to start asking better questions. With this in mind, celebrate being a professional dental assistant, celebrate and elevate our profession, and celebrate the spirit of Dental Assistant Recognition Week throughout the year!

Lori Paschall, CDA, CPFDA, CRFDA, FADAA, is the 2013-2014 president of the American Dental Assistants Association.

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