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Addressing the dental staffing crisis: 3 strategies to overcome shortages

Dec. 8, 2023
Dentistry has been dealing with an unprecedented staffing shortage for several years, and its effect has been widespread. These authors propose that the way out may involve a mix of approaches.

The dental industry continues to grapple with a staffing shortage that shows little sign of abating. An aging workforce and declining enrollment in dental assistant programs, combined with the loss of nearly 8% of the dental workforce at the onset of the pandemic in 2020, represents one of the biggest challenges to success that dental practices are facing.

According to November 2023 data from the ADA Health Policy Institute (HPI), approximately 95% of dentists still find it "extremely" or "very” challenging to recruit dental hygienists, and more than 87% face similar difficulties in hiring dental assistants. This is similar to what dentists reported last year, illustrating the degree to which this problem has become entrenched. Approximately a third of dentists polled are actively recruiting to fill these critical positions, according to the ADA.

Current solutions to the workforce shortage have focused on cross-training staff, with dentists taking on additional responsibilities traditionally handled by assistants and hygienists. At best, this is a temporary solution. It’s not sustainable over the long-term and doesn’t address the future workforce shortage, and as such leads to a crippling cycle of employee turnover.

The dental industry needs innovative solutions to address the staffing crisis head on. From our perspective, three strategies stand out as having the most potential positive impact: widespread adoption of license portability, proactive training and recruitment of a more diverse workforce, and leveraging technology to better meet staffing needs.

Ensuring license portability

Although the “great resignation” of 2021 and 2022 was felt across a wide swath of the economy, many industries were quick to recover because workers could easily move to places where job opportunities were plentiful. This is more complicated for licensed professionals such as dentists and dental hygienists. In 2021, the Council of State Governments, in collaboration with the ADA, Department of Defense, and ADHA, established the Dentist and Dental Hygienist Compact with the goal of creating reciprocity among participating states and reducing barriers to license portability.

The compact has been enacted in three states already, including Washington, Iowa, and Tennessee, and its adoption and implementation is pending in several states, such as Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Kansas. Widespread adoption of the compact is key to its effectiveness, and we hope these states, as well as many more, will embrace the compact so qualified workers can more easily work in areas where the need is greatest.

Recruiting more diverse candidates

Another practical solution to the workforce shortage is to invest in programs that make a career in the dental industry more attractive and accessible to people who may have previously been excluded. Dental hygienists and dentists are still primarily white. Although this is changing, the underrepresentation of Black, Hispanic, and other minorities in the field represents a missed opportunity that hurts both employees and patients.

“Diversity in this field means every child, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, or culture, will be able to see themselves in their oral health provider,” says BrownGirl RDH founder Martelle Coke, who we recently partnered with to launch a scholarship program for dental hygienists. “Active recruitment of people of color to the dental industry—including scholarship programs and mentorships that target those members of society—is a key to making sure the pipeline of talent remains full, diverse, and highly qualified for years to come.”

Active recruitment initiatives, including targeted scholarship programs and mentorships, are essential to ensuring a continuous, diverse, and highly qualified talent pipeline for the dental industry.

Embracing flexible work and online staffing marketplaces

Another way dental practices can adapt to the changing work landscape is by embracing flexible work arrangements. Paid time off, part-time schedules, and policies that encourage a more mobile workforce can help attract professionals seeking a better work-life balance. On-the-job training and skill development programs can further enhance job satisfaction and retention rates.

Technology-driven online “talent marketplaces” are another valuable tool in addressing the staffing shortage. These platforms are particularly good at pairing dental practices with highly qualified, fully vetted full-time and part-time staff, helping reduce the administrative burden placed on dental office managers and enhancing efficiency and profitability in the long run.  

The dental staffing shortage is a multifaceted challenge requiring a multifaceted and dynamic response. The proposed solutions—license portability, diverse recruitment initiatives, and technology-driven staffing solutions—form a strategic framework to address the immediate needs of the industry while building a foundation for sustained success. By embracing innovation and fostering inclusivity, the dental profession can ensure that patients receive the care they need, while practitioners find fulfillment in their roles, ultimately creating a healthier future for all.

Ed Thomas and Cary Gahm are founders of GoTu (formerly TempMee), a pioneering, technology-driven workforce solution and skill-sharing marketplace serving the dental industry.  Founded in 2019, the platform allows dental offices to contract directly with registered dental hygienists, dental assistants, and associate dentists to fill both short-term and permanent positions. To date, it has filled over 200,000 shifts across the United States.