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Dental assistants can be the unsung heroes of a dental practice. In ways big and small, they contribute to the overall success of the company whether they are in a private practice, group practice, or dental service organization (DSO). Both dentists and dental assistants will relate to this discussion about the tension that can occur between them.


One of the problems dental assistants face is the tension between clinical care team members while the patient is in the chair. Unfortunately, this is a chronic problem that doesn’t seem to be getting better in a lot of practices around the country.


The Dental Patient’s Perception of Care Team Tension

We know from our life experiences that if employees of a business are not getting along in front of us, we sense it. Likewise, dental patients feel tension and readily pick up on cues of disagreement or displeasure between dental team members. 

Just imagine if you are a patient in the dental chair and the dentist and the assistant are not exactly on the same page and verbally or non-verbally are letting each other know this. You become uncomfortable on a whole new level. You think:

  • Is this dentist competent? 
  • Is the dentist making a mistake? 
  • Why didn’t they foresee this happening?
  • I’m already nervous…now this? 
  • I’m glad I don’t work here. 
  • Maybe I made a mistake coming here? 
  • I can’t wait for this to be over.


The Dental Assistant’s Perception of Care Team Tension

Within teams, personalities may clash. Sometimes an assistant’s focus wanders. Sometimes poor communication results in a dental assistant being unprepared to respond to the dentist’s instructions accurately, swiftly, and smoothly. Maybe technology fails… a battery or light bulb needs changing. Maybe a needed dental instrument is not on the tray. Maybe an assistant’s arm or neck becomes fatigued…they are experiencing back pain…any number of ergonomic stresses can result in less than perfect performance. But when they are chastised (often unjustifiably), trust in the doctor-assistant relationship deteriorates.

I hear of many instances of dental assistants being degraded in front of the patient, called names, and even dentists throwing instruments. Pent up frustration is usually at the root. But from the dental assistant’s perspective blame for this frustration has been shifted to them. Perhaps, they feel responsible and the need to focus more and “pick up their game,” but usually they feel shamed and unappreciated. 


Professional Behavior to Maintain and Restore Trust

The shame and blame dynamic in the dentist and dental assistant relationship damages patient trust. Unprofessional behavior is unacceptable in any workplace. In a dental practice, unprofessional behavior between colleagues can do more than just make the co-workers feel belittled. It can make the patient feel so uncomfortable, they never return to your practice.  

  • Set Proper Mindset: Make sure that you are thinking of that customer first, and if something is going on that you need to talk about or you need to get off your chest, there is a time and place for it. Recognize what is at the root of the problem and vow to talk through tension and behaviors that need improvement. 
  • Observe Yourself Closely: Dentists, please observe how often you are blaming a dental assistant or a front desk team member or your lab technician for problems that arise all day long every day in a dental practice. Mentally note that stresses on your time, energy, and finances make missteps, no shows, and uncooperative patients seem like monumental problems. Take a beat to respond appropriately instead of reacting emotionally. Dental assistants, please observe how you are part of the problem. Take note of what you need to do differently going forward. Understand the stress and tension the dentist is feeling, even if you are not to blame. Try not to take things personally.
  • Communicate Appropriately: For a clinical team to be a team, there needs to be open communication between dentists and their dental assistants. Make sure that you are always open and honest with each other in the right way in the right time and place. Always be careful about what you say and how you behave in front of patients.
  • Protect the Patient Relationship: Conversations to clear the air and correct course should never occur while the patient is in the room. It should take place when both the dentist and dental assistant are calm and can listen to each other respectfully. You can constructively clear the air, share perspectives, and pass on knowledge that will help the practice run more smoothly. 


What’s Best for the Practice?

Respect and appreciation are two qualities of healthy teamwork you can awaken and mindfully practice. At the same time, every team member needs to be on the same page that the dental practice is a business that will only thrive with great personal relations amongst team members and with patients. 

The bottom line is it cannot be a case of you are wrong and I am right. It has got to be a case of this is what is best for our dental practice--our business, and what is best for our customers. Although these conversations are difficult, as the leader within the practice, take initiative and lead by saying, “We need to talk about this and get it out in the open, so it doesn't happen again.”

Staffing a dental team is difficult with a shortage of well trained and experienced dental assistants available to hire. Development of a healthy, collaborative relationship will enable both the dentist and dental assistant to flourish. Perhaps, the next step for you in understanding and creating an appreciative, trusting dental care team is to read about and consider the many aspects of what it is like to be a dental assistant and solutions I’ve written about in my book Battling and Beating the Demons of Dental Assisting: How Every Dental Assistant Can Have an Amazing, Fulfilling Career

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