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Clinics struggling to find dental hygienists, assistants

By Jeremy Booth, Dental Tribune International
September 03, 2021

CHICAGO, U.S.: As they recover from the initial effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, many U.S. dental offices are being prevented from seeing more patients by a lack of staff. This was one of the findings of a recent American Dental Association (ADA) poll, which also showed that owner-dentists were facing considerable challenges in recruiting dental hygienists and dental assistants.

The latest ADA Health Policy Institute (HPI) survey, conducted in August, included additional questions relating to staffing and found that recruitment challenges were becoming an issue in U.S. dental offices. For 40.1% of all respondents, filling vacant positions in the dental team was a factor that was precluding an increase in patient volume—comparatively, just 30.6% said that COVID-19-related safety protocols were limiting their ability to see more patients. 

Of the total respondents, just under one-third (32%) of owner-dentists said that they were, or had recently been, recruiting dental hygienists. This represented an increase from 24% and 29%, compared with similar polls conducted in October 2020 and May 2021, respectively. 

The number of dental assistants being sought for recruitment had also increased. The August survey found that 39% of owner-dentists were, or had recently been, recruiting for the position of dental assistant, up from 36% in May of this year and 32% in October last year. 

Dentists were being sought by 13% of all owner-dentists, and the ADA did not report an increase in the current or recent recruitment of dentists.

“Dentists are facing even greater challenges in recruiting dental team members than in October 2020”

On breaking the results down according to the model of clinic ownership—either affiliated to a dental service organization (DSO) or not—it was found that DSO-affiliated dental offices were more likely to be recruiting in all staffing categories. More than half (52.2%) of DSO-affiliated owner-dentists were seeking dental hygienists, compared with 31.4% of non-DSO-affiliated owners. Dental assistants were being sought by 69.6% of DSO-affiliated owners, compared with 38.9% of their non-DSO-affiliated counterparts. 

The reported level of current or recent staff recruitment activity was higher at larger dental clinics; however, a significant number of owner-dentists in solo practice also reported recruitment activity for dental hygienists (27.0%) and dental assistants (31.4%). Roughly half of all practice owners with ten or more dentists on their staff said that they were seeking dental hygienists (47.1%) and dental assistants (52.9%). 

Recruiting dental staff remains a challenge during COVID-19 pandemic

Of the respondents who reported recruitment activity, 73.4% said that recruiting dental hygienists now was extremely challenging compared with the situation before the pandemic, and 16.7% described the process as very challenging. More than half (59.8%) of respondents said that recruiting dental assistants during the pandemic was extremely challenging, and 25.1% said that it was very challenging. When it came to recruiting dentists, 40.9% of respondents described the process as very challenging. 

Owner-dentists who were not affiliated with a DSO were more likely to describe recruiting dental hygienists and dental assistants as being extremely challenging (73.5% compared with 66.7%, and 60.5% compared with 31.3%, respectively). 

The ADA commented in a press release: “Dentists are facing even greater challenges in recruiting dental team members than in October 2020.” It also said that the situation with vacant staff positions was “the most common limiting factor for practices that want to see more patients.” 

HPI began conducting the Economic Impact of COVID-19 on Dental Practices surveys in March 2020. The latest survey was conducted in the week of August 16, 2021, and received responses from 1,786 dentists. The core results of the survey can be accessed here, and the additional questions report, which focuses on staffing, can be accessed here. 

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