Do you need more than a hygienist to bolster your bottom line?

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iStock_000022757891_Double_PPDentistry has changed dramatically in the past five years. The economic downturn has changed how patients make decisions regarding their treatment and dental practices need to manage their operations differently. Natasha Shaw reports

Is your practice, like many others in Australia, requiring your dental hygienist to offer more than just dental hygiene? Or perhaps you have already made the move and hired a ‘two-for-one package’ in the form of a dental hygienist/dental therapist to help improve your business’ success?

While researching employment opportunities for dental hygienists, it was interesting to discover that many practices are actually now requesting oral health therapists instead—specialists dually qualified as both a dental hygienist and dental therapist and currently registered with the Dental Board of Australia in both disciplines.

Where once dental practices only sought a dental hygienist to educate clients on dental care and utilise preventive and therapeutic methods to maintain oral health, it appears many dentists now want someone to act as their ‘right-hand man’—a professional with the ability to carry out basic dental tasks, enabling the dentist to perform more intricate tasks and increase practice turnover, both where clients and profit are concerned. According to the Australian Dental Association, an oral therapist’s role includes “examining and diagnosing dental decay and gum diseases and providing routine dental treatments. They also work to promote oral health and provide preventive dental services among individuals and the broader community.” Having a hygienist who can also perform basic dental work can be very beneficial.

“The role of the hygienist is definitely evolving,” says Dr Manish Shah of Smile Concepts in Sydney. “Practices that are doing well are now hiring the hygienist to take over the role for simple procedures such as hygiene, teeth whitening, taking X-rays, administering local anaesthetic, etc. This frees up time for the dentist to concentrate on other areas.”

Many of the additional tasks of an oral health therapist really aren’t too far removed from the basic position of a dental hygienist and, in fact, dental education is reflecting this trend towards the need for both hygiene and therapy specialties within a single role. Campuses all around the nation, including the Faculty of Dentistry at the University of Sydney and Charles Sturt University in the ACT, provide a Bachelor of Oral Health in the form of a three-year, full-time course that offers students dual qualifications in dental hygiene and dental therapy.

“The role of the hygienist is definitely evolving.” Dr Manish Shah of Smile Concepts, Sydney

“My support staff is actually an oral therapist,” says Dr Shah. “The good thing about having an oral therapist is that they can do fillings, issue Invisalign treatments and other orthodontic braces demands, and issue retainers, etc. This gives me more clinical time to concentrate on complex procedures.”

Each State and Territory in Australia has its own limitations on what an oral therapist can do in relation to patients of certain ages, radiation requirements and so on, but it truly can pay to have someone in your practice perform the roles of both a dental hygienist and dental therapist. Initially, it is more cost effective to hire one person who can do everything than hiring two or more people to do the same job. Even hiring a single diploma-qualified hygienist and increasing their responsibilities and education during the time of their employment can be beneficial to a practice in the long run.

Following are six more ways having an oral health therapist can work for you and your practice, and bolster your bottom line.

Providing an extra hand

Dr Shah says having an extra pair of hands in the form of a dual-qualified hygienist/therapist can “take away all the activities that can be done by them from a dentist so the dentist can spend more time effectively doing more complex treatments”.

For example, an oral therapist can provide routine dental treatment for children, adolescents and teenagers in a practice. This can be in the form of education and assessment as well as implementing fillings and extracting primary and permanent teeth under a local anaesthetic. In people of all ages, an oral health therapist can treat gum conditions, clean and scale teeth, take and examine X-rays of teeth and jaws, and make impressions and moulds.

An oral health therapist can take some of the workload from the dentist.
An oral health therapist can take some of the workload from the dentist.
Educating and counselling

Teaching people to maintain good oral health can be a challenge, but an oral therapist can spend more effective time with a patient and motivate them to look after themselves, taking this pressure off the dentist and promoting the practice as one that provides all-round oral care for its patients and is not just concerned with making a buck.

Forging relationships

The ideal oral therapist can help your practice establish a great patient/practitioner relationship, taking into account age, social and cultural backgrounds, which allows the effective delivery of dental treatment, encouraging patients to return to the practice for subsequent treatments.

“In my practice we train our staff every month on communication skills,” says Dr Shah. “My staff benefit from these events and monthly meetings and end up growing both professionally and personally. We think that to motivate people in life is not to just give them financial access, but also to develop them mentally so they feel they are contributing to the company.

“We have excellent staff and we are growing at an exponential rate due to their desire to be better,” he says.

iStock_000032022308_XXXLarge_PPIncreasing customer service

An oral health therapist can act as the link between a client and any other outside specialists they may be visiting, such as temporomandibular joint specialists for jaw issues and psychologists to treat dental fear. This gives a client someone they can rely on to support their overall dental health care as part of their general health.

Boosting turnover

When an oral health therapist can take some of the workload from the dentist, it means a practice can effectively treat more clients. This increasing client turnover adds to the financial turnover of the business. Having an oral therapist may also mean a dentist does not need to hire another dentist (an added expense) in order to cope with the growing workload.

Looking after patient accounts

Discussing treatment plans and payment options can be tedious for a dentist whose time can be better utilised performing procedures. The education and understanding of an oral health therapist can make this necessary part of the treatment less painful on a client, limiting the possibility of them not returning for further care.

While there is no doubt the skills of a dental hygienist are necessary within a practice for the care and maintenance of clients’ teeth and gums, surely there can also be no doubt that a practice will better its bottom line if its dental hygienist is equipped with greater skills that can aid the day-to-day operations within a practice.

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