Situational Awareness: Keeping the Operatories Busy and Everyone Happy

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Most dental professionals, whether they are at the front desk, assistants, or dental hygienists, are intuitively aware that: “When the doctor is happy, everybody is happy.” What makes the doctor the happiest? When his/her (and the hygienists’) chairs are not sitting idle.

Do you have a plan of action to help keep those chairs filled? Situational awareness helps.

Situational Awareness

Situational awareness is the act of being in the moment while also being acutely aware of the near future at the same time. In addition, your present actions influence future outcomes. This preceding is my definition, and it is worth noting Wikipedia’s: “The perception of environmental elements and events with respect to time or space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their future status.”1

How Do We Use Situational Awareness in the Dental Office?

The morning huddle, also known as “The Morning Opportunity Meeting” is the first place to start. By gathering and reflecting before the day starts, we have a chance to view the schedule together as a team to determine if any outstanding treatment in the hygiene department should or could be addressed. Having the next day’s schedule available is necessary as well, as it allows for a quick perusing of any openings in the doctor’s schedule. Being mindful of the schedule and all of the day’s variables are key to promoting a healthy and productive day by using situational awareness.

Reviewing the next day’s schedule enables us to examine and determine if there is any outstanding treatment in the hygiene schedule. By checking ahead of time, the front desk is given a chance to call these patients in advance and remind them of unscheduled treatment. It gives us a chance to find out why their recommended treatment has not yet been scheduled.

Possibly time simply got away from them, or perhaps anxieties are too high to address, or financial reasons played a role in unscheduled treatment. At any rate, gently, mindfully, and with care and concern, find a way to help these patients get their unscheduled treatment addressed. Being aware of the patient’s situation is as important as our own situation.

Fear and anxiety can stop most anyone in their tracks. Offering nitrous oxide, light sedation, calming music, a calm atmosphere, and mindful care goes a long way. We are caregivers, so be true to that. Reassuring the patient that you are there for them speaks to their inner selves. A gentle touch on the shoulder and a sincere eye-to-eye conversation may be just the connection that a patient needs to progress with recommended treatment.

Finances frequently cause anxieties, as well. Perhaps when there is a last-minute opening that has not been filled is a good time to rethink the office guidelines and treat a patient by allowing them an alternative method of payment. This situational awareness can also be thought of as mindful awareness. The office benefits by caring for a patient before they need more extensive care, and by filling that chair with a warm body. The patient is saved from an extra trip to the office and will be thankful for the financial favor. Please be mindful of this patient as they are doing you a favor as much as you are doing them a favor.

Think of mindful and situational awareness as the last yard in a football game before your team scores. The plays are going to be adjusted accordingly to the variable situations and time frames of the game. Different times of the game involve different plays. The playbook needs to be able to change according to how close we are to the end zone. Always remember that you are caregivers first and foremost


Situational awareness involves hypervigilance of the entire staff. We need to be able to adjust to circumstances as they evolve. The most integral time is today and tomorrow. That is when and where the playbook needs to evolve accordingly.

Simply asking your patient, “As long as you are here…” is the simplest way to address unscheduled hygiene treatment. Perhaps they may decide to get that tooth crowned today after all. Most importantly, remember that we are healthcare providers first and foremost, and care should always come before finances.

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  1. Definition of Situational Awareness. Retrieved from
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Rebecca Marie Friend, BS, RDH
Rebecca Marie Friend, RDH, BS, attained her Associate of Applied Science degree in Dental Hygiene from Ferris State University, Big Rapids, Michigan, in 1987, where she also met and married her husband. She has been a practicing dental hygienist for over 30 years and has raised three sons while working as a full-time clinical dental hygienist. Rebecca currently practices in Battle Creek, Michigan. She resides in neighboring historic Marshall, Michigan. Rebecca is board certified in Nitrous Oxide and Local Anesthesia Administration and is certified in low-level laser therapy. Continuously striving to improve upon her skills and methods of forward-thinking in the dental world, she recently attained her Bachelor of Science degree in Oral Health Promotion through Action Research at O’Hehir University. She is actively involved in a mentorship with students at O’Hehir University. “I take pride in my abilities as a skilled periodontal therapist. I enjoy the patient-practitioner relationship that develops when trust and health are gained, taking mindful care of every individual that I connect with. The benefits of helping others achieve a healthy mouth and regain their confidence with a great smile and healthier self are very rewarding. Whole-body health begins with the mouth.” In her free time, Rebecca enjoys visiting the beautiful shores of Lake Michigan, where the sunsets are magical, the dunes are stunning, and the rocks are a collector’s delight. She loves to immerse herself in nature whenever she gets a chance and enjoys canoeing, kayaking, nature walks, flexibility training, yoga, and little “get-a-ways” with her husband. Family life has always been important to her, and now that her three grown sons have spread their wings, she has a little more time to spread hers.