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On Phone In Op

Dental hygiene downtime

Jan. 8, 2020
While the dentist has the right to send staff home if there are lulls in the workday, Kevin Tighe says it's often better for morale and production to find things for them to do around the office when there are no patients. Here's a list to help.

I developed the following checklist based on the work habits of hygienists who have an “old school” work ethic, those who give their employers an honest day’s work and then some. They don’t need to be told what to do if there is any downtime during the workday. They just know how to be productive.

Hygiene downtime happens. During this time, the dentist has the right to ask salaried hygienists to take longer lunch breaks if there is an open slot before lunch, or to leave early if the last hygiene slot of the day is not filled. However, since some staff members may live from paycheck to paycheck, I recommend that employers ask their employees if they would like to stay at the office and be productive during downtime instead. 

Following is a checklist of how hygienists can spend any downtime that may occur in the practice. 


  • Check to see if there is another hygienist in need of help, including with charting.
  • Check to see if an assistant needs help with anything.
  • See if there is a room that can be turned over to get the next patient seated more quickly.
  • Check the schedule to see if there is an emergency patient who needs an x-ray.
  • Collect instruments from the operatories that hygienists are done with and bag them for sterilization.
  • Administer local anesthesia if the doctor would like you to.
  • Sharpen instruments.
  • Sterilize instruments.
  • Stock and put away supplies.
  • Set up trays.
  • Set up whitening trays.
  • Ensure your room is spotless and stocked.
  • Get charts ready for the next day. 

Help the front desk 

  • Check to see if charts have been pulled and if any are in need of filing.
  • Check the next patient coming in for another hygienist to see if the schedule is running on time.
  • Prepare and send recall cards.
  • Send handwritten notes to patients who have not been into the office for a while.
  • Find out what patient calls you can help with, such as unconfirmed, overdue recare, unscheduled, or inactive. (Note: Do not make any calls until you’re comfortable with specific phone skills. Here’s a sample call for recall: “Mrs. Jones, this is Betty from Dr. Smith’s office. I want to let you know you’re due for your hygiene appointment. Can you call me back at this number and we’ll see what day and time works for you? Thank you and have a great day.”

 The days will go by much faster, and your practice will run much more smoothly, if you place this checklist where the hygienists can refer to it and perform some of these tasks. Then they’ll have no problem filling those lulls in the schedule, and no one will have to take any unpaid time.

Kevin Tighe, Cambridge Dental Consultants CEO, got bitten hard by the business and marketing bug during long summer days working at his dad's Madison Avenue ad agency. After joining Cambridge as a seminarist in the mid-1990s, Kevin went on to become Cambridge’s senior consultant and eventually CEO. Cambridge Dental Consultants is a full-service dental practice management company offering customized dental office manuals. Frustrated? High overhead? Schedule a chat with Kevin at [email protected]