Providing the Foundation for a Satisfying Career
Aspen Dental gives technicians the tools to help dentists and patients achieve their expectations
Todd Weils wanted a job with favorable hours that would allow him to interact with the people he was helping. He found it as a dental technician.
Standard 40-hour work weeks and patient interaction might not be common in the dental laboratory profession, but they are the norm at Aspen Dental practices, where Weils entered the technician training program in early 2013.
Weils began his training with James McMahon, a technician with 18 years of experience at the time. He spent approximately 6 months learning from McMahon and Kathryn Strassner, DDS, in the Aspen Dental practice in Glens Falls, New York, shadowing McMahon as well as doing hands-on work under their supervision. He then “floated” to approximately seven laboratories over the next few months, learning from various technicians while also helping out at high-volume locations. Weils is currently a Lead Technician at the Aspen Dental practice in Oneonta, New York, and McMahon describes him as “an incredible technician.”
The training program that Weils entered in 2013 was anything but cookie-cutter, contrary to some misconceptions. Weils describes himself as an eager learner and says by his second day he was working on bite blocks and diving into anatomical concepts in the Laboratory Technician Training Program Complete Dentures Manual, which was created by veteran technician Mike Jimerson, CDT.
“Every trainee must complete a 200-step program that includes intricacies within 20 procedures, but some pass through different parts more quickly than others based on either prior experience or how quickly they pick up new skills,” says Jimerson, whose title at Aspen Dental Management, Inc. (ADMI) is Director of Field Lab Training and Development. “Everybody applies the entire program to their learning, but those who already know some of it will go through certain parts quickly.”
For Weils, the key was soaking up as much knowledge as possible from McMahon.
“The wealth of information Jim had from doing this job for so long was incredible,” Weils says. “He never answered a question with, ‘I don’t know.’ Either he had the answer, or he made a phone call to someone who had it. If I made mistakes, he made me fix them myself. It helped me be accountable.”
Toward the end of the program, trainees are “floated” to various laboratories to learn from different technicians and dentists. Assignments are decided by ADMI’s Directors and Territory Managers of Lab Support Teams, and areas for improvement are often a consideration; for example, Jimerson says a trainee who needs improvement in wire bending could be matched up with technicians who excel at that.
“One of the great things about this field is there is no one correct way to do something,” Weils says. “The result is most important, even if the methodology sometimes varies from technician to technician. By working in several laboratories, you can acquire this body of knowledge that you would not otherwise have. The mouth is not a place that is ever going to conform to what you want, so there cannot be simply one approach.
“Spending time in seven offices and working with seven dentists who all have their own opinions on removables gave me confidence, because they all helped me and by the end they all agreed that my work was up to their standards.”
By the end of the process, trainees must pass a denture certification test to complete the program.
Jimerson, a certified trainer for several independent institutions, says his program’s complete denture certification stage is very similar to the National Board for Certification in Dental Laboratory Technology’s CDT practical testing, but with a wide variety of perspectives.
“Even experienced technicians can learn—I have,” Jimerson says. “It is a tremendous gift to give our trainees so that they can develop the best methods and techniques for themselves.”
True Team Dentistry
Both during and after training, technicians with Aspen Dental all have invaluable resources: the dentists with whom they work. The structure of Aspen Dental practices encourages a collaborative atmosphere, with technicians spending time in the operatory and receiving feedback from both dentists and patients.
“Having the training program take place in Aspen Dental offices allows the technician trainees to see firsthand the results of their live cases,” Jimerson says. “It helps them learn the process in more detail.”
McMahon recently celebrated his 10th year working with Dr. Strassner and says collaboration has been a key to their success.
“The best thing a technician can do is develop an open, honest working relationship with the dentist,” he says. “Communication is the key to it all. If you break down that barrier and just have an open relationship, you can solve any problem.” Interacting with the patient, McMahon adds, provides an emotional element for the technician.
“You change their life by giving them a smile and letting them eat whatever they want,” he says. “There could not be a better reward at the end of the day than getting to see the denture that you created in a smiling patient’s mouth.”
McMahon and Jimerson both say experienced technicians in particular appreciate the opportunity to work closely with dentists and meet patients.
“The feedback from technicians who have previously worked in offsite laboratories is, ‘Wow, what a difference it makes to see your work in the patient’s mouth,’” Jimerson says. “It drives them to do a better job. Dentists can take photos, but there is no replacement for seeing the patient in person. I encourage a lot of phonetic testing to make sure the teeth are in the proper position and all the sounds come out right with proper function. If there are problems, seeing them up close with the dentist present to offer input is extremely helpful for the technician.”
Weils says dentists with Aspen Dental appreciate this dynamic as well.
“Many of these patients are getting dentures for the first time, and they have questions,” he says. “When the dentist can allow the patient to talk to the person making the dentures, it is a very positive situation for everyone involved.”
‘The Sky is the Limit’
Weils says seeing the patients is the best part of the job for him—though it doesn’t hurt that he generally does not work the 12-hour days, weekends, or holidays that many other laboratory professionals do. He says he would not feel satisfied if his work were anonymous.
“For my successes and failures, I see the patients,” he says. “They live in my community. I see them at the grocery store and other places. It’s a rare dynamic that constantly motivates me to improve.”
As technicians improve, ADMI offers them opportunities to advance their careers. Technicians can eventually become Directors and Territory Managers.
“The training program provides the foundation, and then it’s up to you how far you want to go,” Weils says. “If you want to work hard, keep learning, and keep growing, then you can run an office. If you run the office well, you can help other people run offices. You can continue to help patients at higher levels.”
McMahon says the company is like one big family.
“It is a very warm and caring company,” he says. “For technicians who join our family, the sky is the limit.”