How Technology Can Alleviate Dental Workforce Challenges
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How Technology Can Alleviate Dental Workforce Challenges

Workforce shortages are felt everywhere today. Businesses turn to technology for help wherever they can. Take McDonald’s, for instance, which recently implemented robots to assist with tasks normally done by humans. Could technology alleviate one of dentistry’s biggest pain points as well?

When my practice was young, I would field incessant cold calls from hygienists and assistants looking for a job. I waved them off like pesky flies. How I miss those days when I could be so discerning. What happened between then and now? A perfect storm of decreasing enrollment in hygiene and assisting schools, Covid-related resignations, and general burnout. The problem is real, and it impacts a huge number of practices.

According to the often-cited ADA Health Policy Institute (HPI), more than a quarter of offices say they can’t fill their appointment schedule to capacity. About the same number blame vacant staff positions for that. In the same Dec 2023 study, when asked how difficult it was to recruit for a hygienist, 95% said “extremely or very challenging.” As for dental assistants and administrative staff, the number was 83% and 71% respectively.

When reading about workforce shortages in the dental industry, there is emphasis on using technology to recruit talent. It’s equally important, however, to focus on running a maximally efficient practice with the fewest number of staff. It’s also critical to retain staff the practice cannot do without. A prominent dental employment law firm once told me that replacing a staff person would cost my practice the equivalent of one-years’ salary for the position. When you consider what it takes to find, train, and bring a new hire up to speed, that rings true. If recruitment, overall efficiency, and retention are key, how can technology assist?

The front office
The biggest problem I had in my practice was filling scheduling holes, especially last-minute ones. I had a skilled front-desk person who managed it expertly, and I would have been lost without her. AI-powered appointment scheduling now means every practice can benefit from a front-desk superstar. By analyzing historical data, open slots, and time preferences, AI can instantly identify the right patients to optimally fill the schedule. There are some AI services now that will even call and text patients to complete the task. AI can also field inquiries and appointment requests in a self-service manner, which means critical staff have time to answer more complicated calls and engage with patients physically in the office. What’s more, new technology can determine who is overdue, handle intake forms, create alerts for medical history or compliance forms, and so much more. The end result: a need for fewer staff, especially highly trained ones, to do critical work.

If all that wasn’t enough, AI systems can obtain insurance details in real-time and verify coverage. When dental work is rendered, AI helps assure subsequent claims are submitted properly and timely. It even assists with securing approvals and maximizing reimbursement. Dental insurance companies provide benefits when submitted evidence shows criteria for treatment was met. AI analyzes known criteria and reviews claim information before submission. Armed with this information, it suggests additional x-rays, narrative details, or alternate codes for improved claim outcomes. Since it is now possible to send native-resolution images to insurance companies without the troublesome screenshot process, associated delays and denials are further mitigated. Leveraging technology in these ways maximizes practice efficiency with reduced dependence on skilled and experienced staff.

Does all that sound pie in the sky? Here’s the clincher: immediate insurance feedback on proposed treatment is now a reality. Known as real-time or “chairside adjudication,” it’s finally possible to recommend a crown for a patient in the chair and receive instant insurance approval. In this way, no one has to wonder whether treatment is covered, the patient’s exact co-payment, or any of the subsequent resource-draining refund and collections aftermath.

While technology can shoulder much of the burden, offices still require skilled staff without lapses. Many practice owners turn to temporary agencies to maintain continuity. Unfortunately, a revolving door of new faces in the office is problematic on many levels. Most offices have unique procedures and workflows that are difficult for temporary staff to adopt quickly. By leveraging technology to handle office-specific repetitive tasks, documentation, and other administrative processes, temporary staff can focus on what makes them essential: patient interactions. While temporary staffing is more important than ever, long-term hires are the goal. It’s now possible to complete candidate background checks and other due diligence instantly using AI-driven staffing solutions. Similar to filling scheduling holes with patients, new technology can cast a wide net to find the best-suited candidate with the right experience for long-term roles in the practice. All this can be done for a fraction of the cost and time associated with traditional recruiting.

The back office
Staff are often chairside while the dentist reads X-rays and dictates findings. AI-powered systems are now capable of providing detailed and colorful detections using images captured in real-time and at past appointments. Pathology detections are typically executed with FDA-cleared cloud-based software. These tools serve as a second opinion for the dentist as well as improve the process of patient education, a task typically delegated to skilled staff. Automated charting and voice dictations further prevent the need for support staff in the room and reduce the risk of burnout. If the goal is more staff time dedicated to patient interactions, treatment presentations and care, technology makes that easier than ever.

Recent teledentistry improvements have also made it possible to engage with patients outside the office. Whether for consultations, follow-ups, or pre/post-operative assessments, secure video conferencing saves the office precious time and staff resources. With a cellphone in-hand, it is now possible for patients to receive clinically relevant interpretations at home, which further frees up staff and doctor time for issues that can wait for business hours.

Had this article been written five years ago, it likely would have passed as a vision for the far future. As dentists, we aren’t always exposed to technology at the pace it becomes available. That future is here, however, far sooner than imagined—and technology is exerting an exponentially growing impact on the dental industry. With staffing shortages top-of-mind for nearly every practitioner, it has become more important than ever to adopt some of these advancements into daily practice. Current technology can’t single-handedly solve all dental workforce issues, but there is much it can do to lighten the burden. While we yearn for the days of yore when qualified candidates aggressively sought out our practices, technology has made the current reality much easier to cope with.

And maybe the robots will remember I want my burger without onions.

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