Staff shortages are a hot topic in the dental industry. Virtually every magazine, every conference, and every news story is entirely focused on hygienist and assistant shortages. While the shortage has been growing for nearly a decade, the past two years have put it into hyperdrive.

But is the staff shortage as bad as they say? Are hygienists and assistants really rare? And what can you expect over the next few years? Here’s everything you need to know about the dental labour crisis.

A Long Time Coming

Despite the agony surrounding staffing shortages over the past two years, these shortages have actually been looming for nearly a decade. In Canada, the ratio of certified dental assistants to dentists has slowly trickled from 3-to-1 in 2010 to 1-to-1 in 2020 — causing unease among dental offices.

In the United States, dental staffing shortages were already intensifying back when ACA was first launched, with many offices predicting staffing shortages would impact their ability to tap into these new markets.

In fact, even before the pandemic, 36 percent of offices had unfilled dental assistant positions. Case in point, an Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) task force found a shortage of over 150,000 dental workers back in 2018. This number has accelerated since.

The reasons are plentiful. Both hygienists and assistants are burnt out. Graduates tend to be clustered in specific areas (which is part of the reason dental hygienists were in high demand even after the 2008 crash). And demand for dental health is growing rapidly as populations age and healthcare access expands.

But, let’s not ignore the elephant in the room. COVID-19 didn’t do the industry any favors.

COVID-19: The Great Staffing Shortage Accelerant

If all of these past issues were kindling, COVID-19 was the accelerant that finally lit the wildfire of dental staffing headaches. Around 8 percent of the entire dental hygienist workforce quit during COVID-19, and surveys suggest they’re not coming back.

Unlike employee dentists, many of whom were temporarily laid off during the pandemic, hygienists left of their own accord. There was no “great layoff” for hygienists. They just… disappeared. They found new jobs, explored new opportunities, and retired.

And there aren’t enough incoming hygienists to replace them — much less support ongoing growth. Worse, this problem continues to multiply. While reduced patient loads mistified much of this issue during the pandemic, post-pandemic growth is amplifying it. Most dental offices are dealing with labour shortages. And, even those who aren’t, should be worried about how these shortages will impact their long-term. Hygienists and assistants are poachable targets. Worse, burnout continues to cause a “great attrition” of talent across the dental industry.

Where Are We Today?

This is, without a doubt, the worse shortage we’ve seen. As a company with a direct pulse on the heartbeat of dental labour: things are rough

Staffing shortages are the #1 barrier to increasing patient volume (an important part of long-term growth). In fact, these shortages are directly tied to the 11 percent reduction in practice capacity despite post-pandemic regrowth.

Of course, this isn’t your only issue. Inflation seems to be ballooning dental costs, yet not revenue. And finding new patients is challenging after COVID-19s restructure of past-solidified practice boundaries.

But it’s your biggest issue. No one wants to push cleaning appointments 6 months out. Even if it hasn’t hit you yet, it will. All sources suggest the shortage will drag on for at least the next half-decade — if not longer.

How to Address the Dental Staffing Shortage

Let’s not pull punches: it won’t be easy. Surveys that pre-date the pandemic suggest that nearly half of dental hygienists were unsatisfied. Pay, culture, toxic environments, and flexibility are all concerns. Yet, this shortage doesn’t seem so easily solved by wage increases and cultural changes. There just aren’t enough hygienists to go around, and there won’t be for a good long while.

Luckily, you can navigate through this crisis — though it will require some concessions. For starters, leaning into outsourced talent is easiest way to solve the “now” problems. You get talent immediately, and the overall costs are negligible. You still get a killer ROI.

Don’t worry; you don’t have to perpetually leverage staffing solutions. You can use them to find full-time talent, or even build your way to another full-time hygienist role (see the “Proactive Staffing” section at the bottom of this blog to see this strategy in action).

As always, make sure it’s the right type of staffing solution. You don’t want to be slammed with fines and lawsuits in the middle of a labour crisis. That’s a double-whammy.

We also recommend tackling burnout and attempting to schedule around staffing conflicts. The CDA also has a fantastic post on finding full-time hygienists. But we get that those tips aren’t always valuable. In some areas (think: Ontario, Alberta, Seattle, etc.), even world-class hiring tactics can’t save you. There just aren’t enough heads.

We’ve also seen plenty of practices try to find associate dental employees to cover hygienist duties. While we don’t recommend this strategy (poor long-term return and reputation), it may work in a pinch. Plenty of practices are also increasing bonuses, salaries, etc. — which is leading to sky-high salaries in some areas. Importantly, surveys suggest increased salary may not always be the answer.

We also recommend creating a positive culture. While there are some tangible tips for this, most are intangible. You know your culture. Don’t overwork employees or create toxic conditions. It can destroy your retention rate in the short-term and long-term.

We Can Help

We can’t solve the staffing shortage. But we can help you survive it. WORKFORCE provides world-class hygienists and assistants to dental offices across the United States and Canada. From immediate part-time relief to full-time positions, we give dental offices the tools they need to navigate the crisis.

Ready to get some temp or full-time hygienists, assistants, or receptionists in your area? Sign up today!