How a Staff Shortage Is Impacting Dental Practices Across the Country

Updated on October 30, 2023

It’s been more than two and a half years since stay at home orders and emergency only dental care was issued in March 2020, yet dental practices have still not returned to pre-pandemic levels. According to reports from the American Dental Association (ADA), a lack of hygienists, assistants, technicians and overall office staff have caused dental offices across the nation to reduce work hours, limit appointments and sometimes, close up altogether. The ADA found nearly 40% of dentists are trying to recruit hygienists and of those, 95% say it’s been extremely or very difficult to hire someone. In the 20 largest U.S. cities, the ADA’s polling says only half of hygienist positions are reported as filled.

Unfortunately, this shortage has currently been exacerbated due to a higher-than-normal patient demand in recent months as Americans attempt to access care and treatments that were postponed during the pandemic. What’s more, dental procedures often cannot be conducted without an assistant present, so without having the appropriate amount of staff available, dentists cannot operate at all. 

Why are practices struggling to hire? 

At the beginning of the pandemic, dental practices – similar to all other organizations in the healthcare space – ceased regular operations and cleanings unless care was deemed necessary. While this caused dentists to lay off staff, many hygienists and administrative employees voluntarily departed from the dental field altogether. Concerns related to the spread of COVID-19 and the close contact that is associated with dental work, along with other factors such as pay and increased opportunities for remote work in other fields, are all reasons for dental staff departures. 

Another compounding issue for dentists searching for staff has been extreme competition and higher salaries for licensed and credentialed staff. Dental professionals’ demands for pay are far exceeding dental insurance reimbursement rates set for dental cleanings and hygiene services. Private dental practices are responsible for supplying their own dental supplies, PPE, dental equipment, etc. The overhead for keeping these materials, on top of providing a competitive salary, is proving difficult for dental practices as they recover from lower-than-normal patient volumes during the past two years. To offset the costs of staff, many dental offices are now faced with scheduling  twice as many cleanings in the day to balance the cost of providing care. 

How can practices close gaps in staffing? 

Many dentists are relying largely on recruiting and staffing organizations for help, yet there are new advancements in technology today that can help alleviate the stress of finding additional hygienists or office staff. Dentists can advance their usage of computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) software to decrease the time it takes to perform complex restorations. Increasing the use of CAD/CAM dentistry will allow dentists to provide same day restorative, rehabilitative, and implant treatments for their patients. 

By leveraging this technology, dentists will be able to decrease the amount of appointments patients will need to schedule. Less appointments mean less staff is needed to assist in procedures and scheduling. Not to mention, providing a one-stop shop and same-day treatments will undoubtedly improve favorability amongst patients and allow dental practices to serve more individuals without the constraints of finding available staff members. This will also allow practices to recover more quickly from the past two years of working during the pandemic. 

Labor shortages have plagued the dental industry well before the pandemic took place, and will only continue for the industry as more remote positions take flight and more patients continue returning to dental offices. To stay ahead, dentists will need to find creative solutions and turn to resources to help fill the gaps within their practices to keep both patients and staff happy and safe. Innovation in dentistry is evolving quickly and patients will begin turning to practices that offer efficiency, accuracy and affordability over those who do not prioritize advancements in care. 

Dr. David Frank is Owner and Founder of Walden Dental.