Problem-solving in the Dental Office: Solutions for Dental Hygienists to Consider

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Problems within the workplace seem to be a fact of life. While many of us wish that our work worlds were problem-free, the truth is that issues are bound to arise occasionally. When you work in a people-centered field such as dentistry, you work with, meet, and interact with individuals from all walks of life.

The good news is that most of the time ‒ unless you work in a very toxic office ‒ your day will go by without any issues. For those of you who have been lucky enough to work in a stress-free environment, a toxic environment may be characterized as noninclusive, disrespectful, unethical, cutthroat, and abusive.1 In the dental office environment, for example, this may surface as favortisim for one hygienist over another with the scheduling.

What about unnecessary drama or gossip about co-workers? When drama and gossip are present in the workplace, this can make individuals feel like they do not want to come to work; dreading work could indicate a toxic environment.

Problem-solving abilities are essential skills to have in any workplace. After all, it’s a universal job skill that applies to all positions and all industries. The World Economic Forum predicts that by 2025, critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity will rank among the most important soft skills to have in the workplace.2 A few steps to solving issues include:3

  1. Identify the problem: An easy way to start is by asking who, what, where, when, why, and how to try and pinpoint the exact issue.
  2. Brainstorm solutions: Consider every possible way to solve this issue. Write it down, even if you may not think it’s a good solution at first. No idea is a bad idea at this point.
  3. Evaluate and select the solution choice: Evaluate your different options by looking at the pros and cons of each solution and how each solution would play out (i.e., the end goal if that solution is the chosen solution to implement). Make the best choice for the problem or situation based on your evaluation.
  4. Implement the chosen solution: Consider what needs to happen here to reach your goal of solving the problem. Is there communication that needs to take place between the different parties involved? Should there be a timeline of events for more difficult problems?

Let’s start with a few examples of problems that may occur in the dental office.

Patient Service Problem

A patient is upset that his dental appointment has not started on time.

If you were a dental hygienist without problem-solving skills, you may just shrug your shoulders and say, “Sorry.” Or you may send this patient to a co-worker, such as an office manager or front office, transferring the problem to someone else to handle. However, let’s look at how this problem could be solved using the steps given above.

  1. The problem is that our patient is upset. He had a 2 p.m. appointment. It is now 2:05 p.m., and he has not been seated yet.
  2. You brainstorm the following solutions to this problem:
    • Communicating honestly to the patient that you are running behind and what has caused the delay. You apologize for the delay and show empathy and understanding that his time is valuable. You let him know you will seat him in no more than 10 minutes.
    • You apologize to the patient and ask if he would like to reschedule or be put on the “short call list” if there’s a cancellation in the upcoming weeks.
    • Do nothing. It is what it is.
  3. Now you must evaluate the three options you came up with and select the best one. Each one has pros and cons. For this example, we will choose the first solution. We know that we will be able to seat this patient in less than 10 minutes. Since he is a recall patient with excellent home care, we believe his appointment will not cause you to run behind schedule even more. Honesty goes a long way in creating trust with our patients. This solution allows you to communicate honestly with your patient and to make up for the frustration with your great chairside manner.
  4. To solve this problem, we walk up to the front reception area and personally speak with the patient.

Team Member Problem

A fellow co-worker is upset with you because you ran behind schedule, and they must stay late to help close the office.

  1. The problem is that our co-worker is upset. This individual wanted to leave right at 5 p.m. However, due to running behind because a patient was late for their appointment and the doctor ran late for hygiene exams, you did not finish until 5:30 p.m.
  2. You brainstorm the following solutions to this problem:
    • You apologize to your co-worker and explain that running late was out of our control today. You offer to allow her to leave and finish up in sterilization, take the garbages out, etc., by yourself.
    • You brush off the fact that our co-worker is upset and say nothing. Sometimes staying after 5 p.m. is part of the job, and you do not believe this individual should be upset.
    • You communicate to your co-worker that you did not mean to run late and explain why it happened; no excuses, just facts. You empathize with her that she is upset, validate her feelings, and pledge to work quickly together to get out soon.
  3. After evaluating the three options you came up with, you believe the third option is the best. This option allows you to share her frustration for being there past 5 p.m. and devise a solution to work together.
  4. To solve this problem, you work quickly together to finish up in sterile, take the garbage out, and do what needs to be completed to close the office. In addition, both of you plan to speak with your scheduling team/front office and the doctor if running late consistently happens. The goal here is to evaluate allotted appointment times (i.e., scheduling one hour per patient vs. 40 minutes) and get the office on the same page regarding a late patient policy. For example, if the patient is more than 15 minutes late, only radiographs and/or perio charting and an exam will be done; hygiene treatment will need to be rescheduled. If the doctor is consistently late for hygiene exams, a conversation can be had that perhaps they can do their exam when available instead of only at the completion of hygiene treatment.

When you take the time to understand the issue at hand objectively, you have a better chance of solving the problem. Some of you reading this article may cringe, thinking that this process will require you to engage in conflict. However, when you follow the logical steps of problem-solving, the process is meant to be constructive and not conflict-inducing.

Not every hygienist has an on-site support resource for solving issues. As a professional member of the dental practice team, having these problem-solving abilities is an invaluable skill. However, if you have a skilled team member, such as an office manager, consider reaching out to that individual for assistance if you are worried. Be proactive! Problems left unsolved typically grow larger, which can cause further issues in the future.

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  1. Liu, J. (2022, March 31). These are the 5 Biggest Signs of a Toxic Workplace. CNBC.
  2. Whiting, K. (2020, October 21). These are the top 10 job skills of tomorrow – and how long it takes to learn them. World Economic Forum.
  3. Effective Problem-solving Steps in the Workplace. (2023, March 16). Indeed.