Cross-Training Makes for a Better Dental Team...and a Better Dentist

Cross-Training Makes for a Better Dental Team...and a Better Dentist

Julie Clouse, D.D.S.*:

I spend my days in a busy clinic with three full-time dentists and a consulting orthodontist. We provide orthodontic services twice monthly; on those days the general dentists are able to catch up on paperwork, provide hygiene checks, participate in orthodontic appointments, and enjoy a more low-key day than usual. Recently we found ourselves severely short-staffed on one of our orthodontics days. We were in dire need of help at our front desk on the busiest day of our month. There were no assistants to spare, as they were all working with patients. There were, however, three guilty-looking general dentists, all with hot cups of coffee and the daily newspaper.

I decided that I would forego the crossword puzzle and sit at our front desk for the day. I thought to myself, no, not a good use of doctor time, I could be spending a good hour drinking a cup of good coffee. But on the other hand, it is a good opportunity to remind myself about all the things that they do on a daily basis. How hard could it be? Don’t they just spend their time with occasional phone calls and punctuate their free time with the internet?

In my first ten minutes as office receptionist, I violated HIPAA, hung up on a patient, and broke the printer. Upon arrival of the first patient, I printed out his appointment sheet, stepped back into the clinic, and with a flourish proclaimed, “Patient X is here for her cleaning,” only to realize that the entire clinic was full of patients. I found myself using the phone, computer, and fax simultaneously. I even consulted with a patient who wanted to cut his traditional coif in for a Mohawk. And the phone rang, and rang, and rang... Perhaps I had overestimated my competence, but there was a little more to do at the front desk than I had given them credit for. I was unappreciative of all the hats that our front desk wears on a daily basis.

Each dental clinic is a collection of assorted professionals; we all tend to have an assigned niche in our office environments. One staff member retrieves mail, another is responsible for spore testing, and yet someone else is responsible for pre-authorizations. We become self-absorbed with our personal lists of daily tasks and are often unwilling to cross perceived boundaries to do the work of others. Since we concentrate solely on our routines, we blame others when the day is not running smoothly. Resentment and confrontation with co-workers result when we do not fully recognize the tasks and responsibilities of others. I think most doctors can appreciate that staff dynamics can be both the greatest of joys and the greatest of stressors over the span of a career.

Cross-training is a method of learning that allows team members to learn and/or perform (within legal limits) each other’s responsibilities during a regular work day. In theory, the cross-trained person should then be able to step in and help our when the need should arise. That way, when there is a sick call or emergency, it is easier for everyone to take on some extra responsibilities, rather than have one person alone shoulder the work of two people. Initial training should take place during a slow day when the schedule allows for some flexibility. Methods of accomplishing cross-training start with detailed written job descriptions. Our team had to write their own job descriptions, which were then edited by the doctors and added to the staff handbook. Staff members can also walk the trainee through a typical work day, including paperwork, clinical activities, breaks, and end-of-day activities. By actually seeing what fellow co-workers are doing, we can start to respect that their duties may entail more time than originally perceived!

Cross-training reaps benefits for the entire dental staff, not just the individuals involved. The dental team will have increased flexibility and versatility. Attainment of new knowledge shows staff that you place a high importance on staying abreast of current technology. For example, there are new restorative techniques and materials, new equipment, and changes in clinic flow that are constantly being refined to maximize efficiency. When everyone is aware of clinical systems, there is improved standardization, better teamwork, and improved coordination of the day’s events. I encourage all dentists to lend a hand whenever and wherever needed. I find my fellow doctors wrapping and sterilizing, lubricating handpieces, and even cleaning operatories when we get behind schedule. It’s part of being a team and appreciating the work that others do to make a cohesive clinic.

So I got in some cross-training this morning. No, I didn’t exactly follow the guidelines that are laid out above, but I have a new found appreciation for the right way to do it, the right time to do it, and the way in which it will be done on all future dates. I still had my cup of coffee, but it was cold. As for the crossword puzzle, it’s still sitting in my office.


* Dr. Clouse is a general dentist in private practice in New Brighton, Minnesota. Email is