Combating labour shortages in the dental industry

As the ‘Great Resignation’ continues to have a global impact on labour pools, the dental industry has also been affected by severe staffing shortages. One of the first industries to rally in the face of the COVID pandemic, dental practices now face the ongoing challenge of keeping enough staff in the office to meet the growing demand for care.

Current labour trends in the dental industry

There are severe labour shortages affecting the dental industry, mainly due to the various stressors brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Factors contributing to the current labour shortage

In the early days of the pandemic, both dentists and their staff were hesitant to maintain office hours due to the high aerosol risk posed by the coronavirus. Many knew friends or family who had become ill, or had vulnerable people in their family circle for whom they were concerned. Going to work in an environment that required close contact with other people in the capacity of working on their teeth was daunting and fraught with perceived risk.

As practices shut down, retooled and reopened, the risks became less significant. Practices invested in personal protective equipment for doctors, hygienists and staff, and reimagined patient flows through their offices. Continuous cleaning and sterilisation - always a priority in dental offices - reached new heights. Specific safeguards against the coronavirus were instituted to reduce the chances of transmission and infection.

Dental practices opened back up to face a surging demand for care. Patients were focused on catching up on their hygiene appointments and many sought long put-off cosmetic treatments and procedures to improve their smiles. Between the backlog of missed hygiene appointments and increased demands for cosmetic and restorative care, practices found themselves understaffed.

Current staffing challenges facing dental practice owners

Demand for care continues to remain high, and staff shortages continue to plague dental practices trying to meet the uptick in appointments. It is estimated there is a 20 to 25 per cent shortfall in the number of dental hygienists, assistants and other practice staff needed to fill the gap, but finding more candidates who are ready and willing to work has proven problematic.

Alongside government requirements, dental practices have instituted vaccine mandates for their entire workforce, aligning again with the knowledge the industry and its staff face a specific and increased risk compared to many other professions. Some employees however, choose to retire from the profession entirely rather than comply.

This puts an even tighter squeeze on an already hurting sector of the healthcare industry as dentists struggle to keep enough staff on hand to manage the high number of appointments they may book each day.

Another complicating factor is government recruitment of medical professionals across all healthcare verticals to assist in COVID-related health services, including vaccination efforts. Many practices have lost staff to more lucrative government contracts and finding replacements has been highly difficult.

Turnover mitigation strategies for dental practices

Turnover mitigation measures require dental practice owners to take a good, hard look at what is pulling high-quality employees away from their practice, then find ways to stem the flood. Whether that means raising wages to be competitive with government opportunities, or improving benefits packages to create a highly attractive offer, steps must be taken to push back against turnover.

Retaining staff is easier if employees feel their employer is invested in their future. Helping to support endeavours to expand education and defray the expenses of various certifications can go a long way towards building loyalty and increasing staff engagement.

Building learning and development (L&D) programs into a practice can be one way for dentists to create the experienced staff members they need to assist with complex cases. Junior dental assistants and hygienists can be brought in and trained specifically for senior-level positions, creating more value for the practice while increasing their own intrinsic value.

Discretionary bonuses based on performance and productivity can also be put on the table as a measure to combat turnover, helping to encourage retention by providing tangible recognition of the value the staff member brings to the practice.

How to keep your dental practice running during a staff shortage

In addition to putting L&D programs and incentives in place to help attract top talent and reduce staff churn, having expert consultants weigh in on legalities and return on investment of the various incentives can help practices maintain functionality and profits in the face of higher labour costs.

Balancing direct and lasting impact (such as higher wages, which will be difficult, if not impossible, to walk back) with indirect actions that are no less impactful over the long term (such as L&D) can allow practices to build their own highly trained core of staff members who have deep practice loyalty.

How BDO advisers can assist

BDO can help you determine how best to restructure your staff compensation packages to attract and retain a full complement of employees. An adviser can also help you look more closely at the foundation of your practice revenue base, identifying how to shift your practice focus to treatments and patients who bring in the higher levels of revenue, without requiring the staff-intensive commitment of a heavy recall book.

For more information on how BDO can assist in combating labour shortages in the dental industry, contact one of our advisers today.