Dental assistants: handle with care

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dental assistants
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Dental assistants are essential to the proper functioning of a dental clinic—so making sure they are happy in the job and feel professionally fulfilled should be one of your top priorities. By Stuart Turner

It is almost a decade ago, but Juliana Osorio Garcia still vividly remembers her nerve-racking early days working as a dental assistant. “I was really scared because I felt I knew little about dentistry,” says Osorio Garcia, who now works as dental clinic and patient coordinator with the Australian Dental Health Foundation and Filling the Gap programs. 

“When I’m nervous, my hands shake, and I was very nervous initially. The dentist I was working with saw my nerves. She held my hand and said, ‘Relax, you’re doing everything right’. It showed me I was cared about and appreciated in the practice, which was very important to me.”

Osorio Garcia says such positive experiences working as a dental assistant for about six years in two Sydney practices had spurred her dentistry career. “The dentists at both practices took the time to get to know me as a person. They also let me get to know them as people too.

“Dentistry is not for everyone and it’s especially tough when you’re just starting out. If you’re not feeling appreciated, you might not want to be in that environment. Ensuring I felt part of the team in those initial days really helped me settle in. Now I love working in oral health.”

Building a strong professional relationship through effective communication with a dental assistant is important for any dentist, but it can be challenging.

A 2022 Dental Assisting National Board study in the US found ‘feeling not part of the team’ was among the top three factors influencing dental assistants’ professional dissatisfaction, alongside salary and work-life balance issues.

Former Australian Dental Association New South Wales president Dr Kathleen Matthews says she has always regarded dental assistants as her “second brain” in the clinic during her 40-year career and has treated them accordingly.

“Showing all your staff you appreciate them is hugely important and it can start on a basic level,” she says. “Simple things like buying them an occasional cup of coffee, remembering birthdays and always saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ can help build a strong working relationship.

Dentistry is not for everyone and it’s especially tough when you’re just starting out. If you’re not feeling appreciated, you might not want to be in that environment. Ensuring I felt part of the team in those initial days really helped me settle in. Now I love working in oral health.

Juliana Osorio Garcia, former dental assistant

“If something hasn’t gone so well during an appointment, a post-appointment debrief can be useful, but always ensure it’s done calmly and respectfully. Never embarrass a dental assistant in front of a patient.”

Dr Matthews also believes incorporating things like treatment and practice ‘task lists’ can also help dental assistants feel more comfortable in their roles.

“Dental assistants are often great at learning systems and keeping things under control,” she says. “A lot of dentistry is about utilising good hand and eye skills, behaviour management and systematic processes. If you try and stick to regular processes in the practice, it can make working life easier.”

Osorio Garcia agrees that simple but straightforward communication during her early days quickly helped improve her dentistry knowledge.

“A basic example was being told not just what a piece of equipment was called, but also when, how and why it was used,” she recalls. “It helped me remember what it was when I was asked a second time.

“I also recall the principal dentist and practice managers asking my opinions on things like improving practice layout and other efficiencies. This also helped make me feel more appreciated and valued.”

Dr Frank Farrelly, principal dentist and co-owner at Sydney’s Darlinghurst Dental, says he always attends “at least” the final stage of interviewing dental assistants to ensure he is satisfied they will be a good fit “communications and teamwork-wise”.

His practice gives new dental assistants a half-day trial prior to officially starting and they are shadowed by fellow team members to help them learn new processes.

Dental assistants are often great at learning systems and keeping things under control. A lot of dentistry is about utilising good hand and eye skills, behaviour management and systematic processes. If you try and stick to regular processes in the practice, it can make working life easier.

Dr Kathleen Matthews, former president, ADA NSW

“We’ve also devised a ‘checklist’ system to ensure a new dental assistant observes our processes performing a treatment during their early days,” Dr Farrelly says. “If I’m performing root canal treatment, for example, the new dental assistant is scheduled to work alongside me.

“A dental assistant may have accrued 20 years’ experience elsewhere, but it’s back to square one coming to a new practice. It’s worth taking extra time if it helps integrate them into the team.

“As a dentist, however, you should yourself always respect the experience the dental assistant brings to their role. They will have picked up skills along their journey that you can learn from them.”

Dental Assistants Professional Association president Barbara Hayes champions the comprehensive development of dental assistants and emphasises the significant impact of broadening dental assistants’ roles within the practice. 

Hayes says she has consistently observed dental assistants’ eagerness to expand their knowledge and skills, and advocates for their involvement in a range of responsibilities—such as managing stock control and aiding in treatment plan coordination, for example—in addition to ‘traditional’ tasks.  

“This approach not only enhances the dental assistants’ skill set, but also instils a sense of appreciation and value, further motivating them to excel in their roles,” she says.  

More broadly, Hayes believes developing a respectful culture towards all staff is essential for any practice.

“When asking staff about their motivation for coming to work, if the response is simply ‘for the pay cheque’, it might be valuable to reflect on the culture being nurtured within your organisation,” she says. “A thriving workplace culture is cultivated from the leadership down, radiating a sense of appreciation and value towards every employee. 

“Foundational respect and recognition are what truly inspire staff to remain and contribute passionately to an organisation’s success.”  

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