At the time of my office transition, I had been a dental assistant for 28 years, six years with my dentist.

I was comfortable sitting right beside him, and we worked together so fluidly. We flowed like the tide, ever so graceful. I could read his mind and knew exactly what he wanted and when he wanted it. It was true harmony, and he became upset when he had to work with other assistants.

Our mojo was rockin!

We never had a dental office manager. Eric Hurtte (yes, I work for Dr. Hurtte) and I met at another clinic before he opened his practice; and when it was time, he left that clinic and took me with him. I was his “one and only” for over two years.

Opening from scratch that first year was lonely. Being creative with marketing, we did what we could to get a warm body in the door. We grew from two operatories to six in those six years.

I remember the first time we produced $2000 in a single day. We were elated!

Now with seven ops, a team of 18, and our third office due to be built in less than three years, we are grateful for the blessings we have. It was a bumpy road to get there, and I’m sure more bumps will come along the way. Growth isn’t always easy.

“Stepping up” to fill a need

My transition came by way of necessity.

My boss, being the kind soul he is, could not confront team members about their poor job performance. To this day he wants to be everyone’s friend. At one point, we let go of three team members within four months. He was drained, both financially and emotionally; not that anyone had stolen anything except our time (cell phone usage, online shopping, cigarette breaks, etc.).

He asked me to step up and become dental office manager for one reason: He wouldn’t have to hire or fire anyone! That could now be my job!

I’m one of those people who are passionate and protective about my practice. I take ownership in every aspect of it. Don’t mess with my practice or my doc! My new position still required me to be an assistant; only now I had the responsibility of running the office as well. Of course, this required me to do more than just hire and fire.

Making the transition

First up, hire some new team members! How can you grow without a team?

Next: get our accounts in shape. With our former team concentrating on everything but their jobs, some of our accounts and insurance aging had fallen by the wayside. Yes, I had been with him the longest. However, until I was “promoted,” I didn’t have much cause to look into reports, see what claims had been filed, etc.

Now, half of my time was spent chairside, and half of it up front, learning how to tackle insurance and train a team in a world I knew little about.

The first year was catch-up. We found a solid team, and we dove into learning all we could about what makes the front flow smoothly.

What’s a clearing house? Publishers Clearing House? What are they talking about? How much are we paying for statements? How can we save? I was at the office many evenings by myself, trying to figure it all out.

Back then, I lived an hour away from the office and was usually the first in the door and the last out. Some things never change… I still am.

The need for change

I think my biggest hurdle to jump was getting patients to pay for services rendered that day. Our former team started off great, but over time they allowed people to fall through the cracks.

We had one scheduling coordinator who believed that having a body in the chair was better than nobody, and if the patient didn’t pay, no big deal; they will pay at some point. It was production, after all. Production was all we needed! (Insert eye roll here.)

Changing the way we went over treatment plans, presented financial arrangements, spoke to our patients, and created appropriate verbiage and phone skills was challenging. I remember sitting at my desk and hearing another scheduling coordinator answer the phone and say, “Nope we don’t take that insurance. Thanks. Goodbye,”—and then hang up! (You can do the eye roll thing again.)

Those things took work, and changing the thought process of our new team was difficult. We all get into a habit, and bad ones are hard to break.

Learning new skills and training methods

Teaching our team members to work together and hand-off well when transitioning a patient from back to front was also awkward. When that happens, the patients can smell fear. Never let them smell the fear when it comes to money! A smooth hand-off, with all questions answered properly, gives the patient a sense of confidence in you, your team and your practice.

I believe it took me two full years to get a feel for my new position. Remember, I was a part-timer at best, muddling my way through.

I am a CE junkie, so I took all of the online courses and read whatever I could get my hands on about how to become a dental office manager. Soon, our new team was up to speed, and I was free to promote other areas of the business. I still take all the dental office manager CE I can. This industry is ever-changing. If you aren’t keeping up, you will be left behind.

I believe that every dental assistant should learn aspects of the front office, but I do not believe that dental assistants should handle financial arrangements. That should be left to the professionals up front. Not that a dental assistant can’t handle it, but I feel there should be separation from front to back in that respect.

That said, I believe that some of the best front office team members are former dental assistants. If you find yourself searching for another team member to fill a position up front, try one of your dental assistants. The knowledge they have from being in back will be a huge asset up front!

A successful transition

Today, we have four amazing women working hard at the front lines to keep our office running smoothly. When you have a great team that is working together for the same goal, your position as an office manager is an easy one. I am one blessed manager!

I didn’t start off wanting to be an office manager. At the ripe old age of 19, I thought that by the time I was old (say, 40), I would have to move to the front desk; because nobody THAT old was a dental assistant! The fact is, you never know what life has in store for you! Now, at the young age of 56, I am a proud dental assistant/office manager, and I’ve come to appreciate both of my roles.

I’ve been with Dr. Hurtte for going on 15 years now; we have successfully opened five dental assisting schools and offer a variety of continuing education courses for dental teams throughout the country. I love sharing my passion for both roles, and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else!


 

Meet the Author

Head shot of author Tija HunterTija was named one of the Top 25 Women in Dentistry by Dental Products Report Magazine 2015. She is a member of the American Dental Assistants Association (ADAA) where she holds the honor of Master. She’s the director of the Dental Careers Institute with five locations.

Tija is also the author of six CE study courses. She is a national speaker and a certified trainer in nitrous oxide.

She can be reached at tijaefda@gmail.com.

 

 

 

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