Inside Dental Assisting
May/June 2013
Volume 9, Issue 3

The Hidden Attributes of the Dental Assistant

Building relationships with patients & manufacturers is a powerful win-win

Theresa Groody, CDA, EFDA, MEd
Director of Professional Studies
Harcum College
Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania

What sets a dental practice apart from the competition? From a patient’s perspective, a welcoming office environment surely tops the list. Ask a dental team member, and the reply will most likely be comparable. Human nature guides us into choosing a positive environment, so these initial reflexive responses are assumed. With that stated, let’s dig a little deeper into a few variables tipping the scale.

The hidden attributes of the dental auxiliary are numerous; rapport with both patients and sales personnel can be motivating to the assistant and increase overall morale of the dental team. This will consequently increase efficiency, job performance, and loyalty to the practice.

The Patient

Regardless of the practice size, the assistant is the team member spending the most time with the patient for operative procedures. From the moment the patient enters the operatory, the dental assistant has limitless opportunities to educate and to execute the mission of the practice. The more motivated and supported the assistant feels by the practice, the easier it is for that individual to deliver the practice’s messages to the patient.

Many resources are spent on consulting fees, seminars, and conferences that focus on attracting new patients, retaining current ones, and increasing productivity. This means some dental practices might be overlooking the importance of building a positive work environment with staff.

Patients will ask the assistant specific questions pertaining to treatment that they may not be comfortable asking the dentist. While most dentists might not consider this ideal, the fact remains that it occurs quite often. If the assistant can help alleviate the patient’s anxiety, the dentist should value that skill set and appreciate the end result.

To remain successful as a dental practice today, working more effectively and efficiently in a supported, positive environment is paramount. Patients observe the overall rapport of the dental team: Are team members positive, motivated, and functioning effectively or are they visibly stressed, feel undervalued, and just appear to be getting through the day? These are certainly tough questions for all to address, but stress and anxiety may be getting in the way of providing excellent dental care to our patients.

It is empowering for all team members to know how critical their roles are in providing excellent dental care to patients. When assistants are made aware that their opinions matter and that they are respected and valued by both the patient and dentist, they will be motivated to continue to learn and support the mission of the practice.

The Sales Representative

Another valuable relationship to explore is that of the assistant with the distributor and manufacturer representatives who visit the office regularly. No one would argue that delivering dental care chairside is the most productive place for the dentist and any time away from that decreases efficiency and productivity. Often, the task of ordering gets delegated to the operative division, which usually includes general supplies and the hygiene department since many preventive companies sell direct and their needs are specific.

“The more time an assistant works with representatives, the more they can learn about new products and techniques,” says Lynn Pencek, Senior District Manager, Sybron Dental Specialties.

It is the attentive sales team that values assistants and realizes just how much their opinions matter to the dentist who had delegated this duty to them. Successful companies have recognized and accepted that visits are not wasteful if the dentist is unable to meet with them; rather, such companies use this time to build a positive relationship with the assistant who ultimately not only uses the product, but has more of an impact on what is ordered than many companies realize.

“Without question, the alignment of our field personal and the dental auxiliary provide a win-win to both the dentist and the patient,” says Burke Miller, Senior Regional Sales Manager, DENTSPLY North America. “In recognizing that this partnership is clinically driven, the relationship allows for a more empowered clinical environment. The team of the dentist, assistant, and manufacturer are more aligned with innovation and service, while enhancing the opportunity for a valuable patient experience.”

At any dental conference, there are companies who demonstrate this point. Name badges clearly identify the association of each attendee—dentist, assistant, student—and are noticed upon arrival at the exhibit booth. Traditional companies seem to seek out the dentist only and visibly ignore all others, especially students. What the smarter companies display,however, is admirable to witness.

Companies that take the time to visit schools, to meet students, and to educate are rewarded with additional accounts as a result of planting these seeds for new professional connections. Students remember company names and the specific salespeople they meet, but more importantly, they also remember how they were treated. When these students enter into clinical experience and/or graduate, they carry those positive memories with them to their externship offices and/or future employers. In doing so, they will usually reach out to that salesperson or company for product or information. While this is not an immediate return on investment, which many companies demand in this current market, it resonates with the fundamental goal of building the relationship first and then waiting for the reward.

Experienced assistants have practical insight to share with employers and sales personnel when it comes to selecting products. From routine consumables to capital equipment, assisting teams have comparable direct experience with product to dentists; for example, they are qualified and can provide feedback on texture of gloves, absorbency of towels and cotton rolls, handling of disinfectants, properties of alginate and gypsum products, design of cabinetry and efficient design, desired location of hoses and hookups on carts, just to name a few. To that end, when dentists and sales personnel elicit, respect, and implement this valuable feedback, assistants feel valued and more invested in their profession.

“Regularly communicating with manufacturing reps keeps everyone up-to-date on the new technologies and how to properly use them. Dental assistants are a great resource for troubleshooting problems in the operatory,” says Matt Hahn, Regional Sales Director, Pennsylvania Region, 3M ESPE.

Education Expansion

In states that utilize expanded functions dental assistants (EFDAs), or any variation of that title, the connection may be even more powerful. Dentists delegating restorative procedures will not only include their EFDAs in product selection discussions, but will also allow them to select products based on their own preferences because they may well be the primary users of the product.

“The role of the EFDA can be very effective in meeting their sales representatives, gaining new knowledge in clinical techniques associated with products and setting up team meetings to teach the rest of the practice in implementing them into their day-to-day procedures,” says Lil Caperila, RDH, BSDH, MEd, Manager of Professional Education, Premier Dental Products Co.

Especially in restorative states, dental manufacturers and distributors alike are continuing to move forward with continuing education offerings as this resonates strongly with those who understand the impact dental assistants have on their dental practices. An obvious connection is again made with staff if they begin asking for more courses developed specifically for them and the company working with that office creates one or refers staff to an existing one. In the past, some manufacturers advertised hands-on courses and limited attendance to dentists only. This philosophy parallels those overlooking auxiliary staff at exhibit tables; clearly more successful relationships are built based on including staff and meeting their needs rather than excluding and ultimately frustrating them.

“I find offices where the assistant and dentist take continuing education together, the office operates more cohesively,” Pencek says.

Employer Relationship

Suggestions to assist employers and companies desiring to build or improve these relationships are fairly simple to implement. Adapting a genuine interest in each employee can improve the overall dynamic of the practice as well as the rapport with the dental supply company.

Just as patients can sense when the climate is genuine and positive, employees are certainly aware when their employer has compassion and concern for their overall well being and when they do not. Successful practices seem to incorporate several team-building events that combine staff meetings with social activities.

When employers make a point to check in with each employee regarding how they feel in their current positions, helping them identify personal strengths and areas they would like to improve, the employee feels more supported. This type of interaction proves unsuccessful, however, if it comes from a place of evaluation; the team member may not be as honest if the discussion is connected to salary or feelings of insecurity about job stability. Effective leaders inspire individuals to develop strategies for success. By ensuring employees are content in the workplace, dentists not only elevate the morale of each team member, but also the personality of the entire practice.

Dentists can enhance their relationships with staff by taking a genuine interest in each team member’s ambitions by serving as a resource for any materials or techniques that could make their roles more effective. Taking the time to learn specific continuing education requirements for each staff member who requires it not only shows interest in the individual but also takes an extra step not directly related to profit. Dentists have adequate course and conference opportunities, yet don’t always consider inviting staff to accompany them. Most companies have an education division that can connect employees with webinars and courses or look into creating new courses.


The dental assistant is a key facilitator of enduring patient and sales relations—an importance that should not be overlooked. One positive relationship builds upon another, leading to a healthy, motivated dental team and practice.This role in any office is vital for relationship building and actually may result in a triple win; that is, when the doctor and assistant have mutual respect for one another, the patient ultimately wins in the end.

On a Side Note

Inside Dental Assisting talked with Lori Paschall, CDA, CPFDA, who has been a dental assistant for almost 30 years and works as a regional account manager for Hu-Friedy Mfg. Co., LLC., one of the world’s leading dental instrument companies.

How important is it for a sales representative to forge a solid relationship with the assistant? And why is it important?

Lori Paschall: The dental assistant in the practice can be a sales rep’s best friend or worst enemy.Statistically, dental assistants are responsible for the majority of buying decisions in a practice and can wield a lot of influence as they always have the ear of the dentist.I think a lot of times, dealer reps feel they need to forge relationships with the dentist because the dentist is the one who signs the checks.When they forget the influence that the assistant has in a practice with reference to selecting dental materials, it can make for uncomfortable situations for everyone.

How valuable is the role of the dental assistant in selecting products?

Paschall: It has been my experience both as a clinical dental assistant and a dealer rep that dentists weigh heavily on the opinions of their assistants. Many times, the dentist looks to the dental assistant to either make or assist in making decisions on products. Typically, if an assistant doesn’t like something possibly due to lack of ease of use or if it’s difficult to clean up, the product will often end up in a drawer.

How does your experience as a dental assistant help with forging bonds?

Paschall: I have been a dental assistant for almost 30 years and prior to coming to Hu-Friedy, I was a dealer rep myself.One of the things that worked well for me is that I had a unique knowledge as to what dental assistants were experiencing on a daily basis as I had walked a mile in their shoes. For me, it is an instant connection because I can communicate dental assistant to dental assistant, creating an almost instant bond.

What kind of questions should dental assistants ask of their sales reps? Do you have any other suggestions?

Paschall: Dental assistants should look at their dealers’ reps a great source of information.A good dental assistant should be asking questions regarding the products used in his or her practice.Why should we use this product over another?What are the benefits to the patient?How easy is it to use?Is it easy to clean up? What is the cost per use?This is an important question as many times a product may appear more cost effective than another because we assume the amount to be used is the same from company to company. Often this is not the case.Make sure to check the packaging for proper use.Good dealer reps should be more than just an order taker and should be bringing information regarding new products or information on issues important to a dental practice.

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