An Office Manager’s Role in Preventive Dentistry

Have you ever heard of the Institute for Oral Health?  This organization identifies best practices in oral health and then encourages collaboration between dental insurance companies, physicians, dentists (private practice, academia and public health) and researchers to benefit the public and the profession. This year’s annual conference theme was on preventive dentistry and I was lucky to attend.

From the 200 attendees at the conference, I met only one other dental office manager – so I thought it might be worthwhile to share an office manager’s perspective on the future of preventive dentistry. At this conference, a vision was shared that although everyone knows dental infection is an entirely preventable disease, we truly can work together to eliminate this disease – just like polio in the past. The President of the ADA challenged the group to set a timeline – let’s eradicate dental disease in the U.S. in 10 years! The first steps to making this a reality is to focus on the diagnosis and treatment of the disease in addition to treating the symptoms (fillings, crowns, replacing missing teeth).

To diagnose a caries infection, you use a risk assessment. Part oral health habits and lifestyle questionnaire, part saliva and bacteria evaluation and part clinical exam, this risk assessment will serve to let your patients know if they have this disease today and what risk level they are for developing it in the future. The ADA has published a caries risk assessment form on their website and Dr. Kim Kutsch, CEO of CariFree shared his version at the conference as well

As dentistry starts to use these risk assessments in private practice, I can see three major opportunities for office managers to help patients and their practices:

  1. Documenting risk assessment results for insurance payment – Right now, documenting caries risk isn’t a part of the insurance claim form. As insurance companies begin to require this information to identify what benefit level this patient receives and process the claim, office managers can figure out how to document the risk assessment in our computer systems. The benefit to the dentist is that if a patient has a documented high risk of decay, then this patient will receive more benefits than someone who has a low risk. Practices that document risk assessment will receive more accurate insurance reimbursements.
  2. Documenting clinical results – Insurance companies already create a profile of dentists to identify outliers (the dentist that submits far more crowns than a normal practice) so let’s turn this idea on it’s head: office managers could track how successful the practice is at moving patients to the lowest risk category – and this can become a successful marketing communication.  “Come to our practice because we have documented success at helping people stay healthy!” 
  3. Communication skills – There was lots of discussion at the conference on how to talk with patients in a way that allows them to choose to change their oral health behavior. The acknowledgement that dentists and clinical staff are not trained to talk and connect with people, so this is a separate skill that is needed for the future of preventive dentistry that the office manager can take over. To think how this could work in practice, when the patient arrives for their cleaning and exam appointment, the office manager would simply hand the patient a questionnaire (along with the standard health history) to document their oral health habits and lifestyle (i.e. smoker). After the clinical exam where they hygienist completes the rest of the questionnaire, the office manager sits down in a consultation room and shows them the results of this caries risk assessment. The office manager can take the time to really connect with this patient and review the treatment choices of the infection (from doing nothing to conservative or aggressive treatment of their decay problem) as well as reviewing the treatment plan (fillings, crown, etc.) and tie all this into the patient’s motivation.

As caries risk assessment becomes more popular in dental practices as a preventive approach, there will be many changes. Dentists and clinical staff will expand their focus from treating symptoms to talking about the disease of dental decay and helping people understand that they can stop this disease. Insurance companies will begin to reimburse based on the patient’s level of health. Office managers can play a major role in preventive dentistry by managing documentation of risk assessment results for insurance payment and dental practice marketing as well as developing people skills to connect with patients trying to fight this disease. As office managers help to make a difference in people’s lives through preventive dentistry, we all win.

For more ideas to improve the business-side of your dental practice:

AUTHOR: Jill Nesbitt
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