Health Administration Jobs in Dental Office Management
There is a whole lot more to running a dental practice than just the kind of specialized medical knowledge that comes with earning a DMD or DDS. Well-trained dentists could be the best in the world at plying their trade and still have little expertise in the business aspects of running a practice.
That is where skilled dental office management can make the difference, handling finances and budgeting, insurance and billing, staffing and supervision, marketing and patient satisfaction, and just about everything else it takes to run a dental practice besides the dentistry itself.
In addition to working closely with patients and office staff, the admin is also the person who works most closely with the dentists themselves. Although the number has been diminishing slightly in recent years, the ADA found that, as of 2017, nearly 90 percent of dentists were owners of their own practice.
That makes dental office management an all-engrossing role in healthcare administration, with most managers working in relatively small clinics with a great deal of independence and responsibility.
Although it doesn’t offer some of the opportunities that senior medical administrator jobs with big healthcare providers and companies can, it does offer a fast-track to a position where you can run an entire office the way you choose, bringing together business acumen with HR and customer service skills to support the owner in building and maintaining a successful dental practice.
Dental Office Manager Job Description: A Hand In Every Aspect of Dental Practice Administration
Dental office management doesn’t come with a lot of the stresses and uncertainties of other healthcare jobs. Dental offices—at least, well-run dental offices—operate on a predictable schedule, with routine appointments, a refreshing lack of emergencies or surprises, and a lot of well-trained, well-compensated staff who love their jobs.
Dental offices have the same kinds of day-to-day demands as other medical centers, and they demand administrators with equally comprehensive training.
A dental office manager is responsible for coordinating a wide range of activities within a dental practice. The manager may spend some work hours coordinating billing and accounts receivable, scheduling employees, filing insurance claims, and conducting other business functions.
Staff supervision, recruiting, and hiring also are likely to be among the manager’s daily duties. Nationwide, the National Conference of State Legislatures identified more than 45 million Americans as living in dental health professional shortage areas; parts of the country where there simply aren’t enough dentists or hygienists to cover the need. The problem has been trickling down to hit local dental practices for years, which makes recruiting and retention a prime job for dental office managers.
Manager are also often responsible for marketing and public relations functions for the office. That’s particularly important in dentistry, both because of the reluctance of people to visit dentists in the first place, and the fact that dental insurance is much less common than medical insurance… according to a 2020 report, more than 1/3 of American consumers don’t have dental coverage. That means services are paid for out of their own pocket, and they are much more likely to spend time shopping around than they do for other healthcare services. You need to be ahead of the competition when finding innovative ways to bring in clients, from catchy ad jingles to VR patient experiences that reduce anxiety and discomfort while in the chair.
In all of these roles, the manager should be an excellent customer service liaison for patients who visit the office. You and your staff have to offer reassurance at every turn, and as the admin, it’s on you to set the tone.
There is also the inevitable management job of putting out fires and unsnarling communications. Whether it’s an appointment scheduling mix-up or a missed order for dental floss, any hiccups that happen in the daily operation of the clinic will wind up on the manger’s desk for resolution. That means great problem-solving, critical-thinking, and people-handling skills are a must.
The Very Human Side of Dental Practice Management
It’s kind of strange phenomenon that going to the dentist actually frightens off many otherwise steady and reasonable adults… genuine scientific surveys published in the Dental Research Journal and the National Library of Medicine find anywhere from 25 to 60 percent of people have a fear of going to the dentist, while as many as 10 percent have an actual diagnosable phobia about dentists. That’s right, it’s so common there’s even a DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) diagnosis code for it. It seems the well-worn trope of the sadistic dentist immortalized in Little Shop of Horrors is familiar to just about everybody, even if you’ve never even heard of the 80’s classic movie or stage show.
Not many other medical practice areas have a standardized patient survey devoted to establishing how scared people are to show up for an appointment. But medical office administrators are all familiar with the standard Corah Dental Anxiety Scale, dating back to 1969, and still used in many offices to figure out just how dramatic a particular patient visit is going to get.
That’s a real problem for dental care in the United States today, because, according to the American Dental Association, only about half of adults see the dentist at the regularly recommended interval for checkups. And more than 20 percent haven’t had professional dental care in years.
That kind of neglect has real consequences, the kind that dental managers unfortunately see all the time. Nearly half of adults over thirty suffer from untreated periodontal disease, and a quarter have untreated caries. What’s more, anywhere from five to ten percent of adults report some embarrassment, anxiety, or difficulty in participating in routine conversation or social activities because of dental issues.
Taking on a career in dental practice management offers you an opportunity to help those people in two significant ways: one, to deal with lingering and sometimes chronic health conditions that stem from dental issues, and two, to live happier and more productive lives without shame or embarrassment that can come with wrecked teeth or wicked bad breath. You need to bring high levels of compassion and training to the job because you have a much higher bar to clear here than in traditional medical administration roles.
Getting the Right Degree to Become a Dental Office Manager
The traditional path into dental office administration has always run through college degrees in healthcare administration. With the same general concerns for patient relations, business and finance considerations, staffing, insurance billing, and regulatory issues as any other healthcare professional, dental office managers have gotten the kind of expert training necessary to succeed in the field through degree programs at the associate, bachelor, and even master’s levels.
Specializations or concentrations in dental office management are few and far between, so a more general degree in health services administration typically provides the best fit. But many dental office managers come into the profession from another route, by working first as dental assistants or hygienists, and then branching into administration. Both roles can be had with a two-year associate’s program, which can then be transferred into a bachelor’s degree program in healthcare administration if the right conditions are met.
The curriculum found in health services administration programs prepares students to take the lead in administering and overseeing daily operations at a busy dental office. As a dental office manager, the job description will call for all the basic office skills training you would expect, and on top of that supervisory skills, legal knowledge, and some background in the field of dental health.
Everything other than that last one would be covered in an associate of bachelor degree program – that specialized knowledge comes either through some experience in the field or through some field-specific training. That’s where professional organizations like the DALE Foundation and the American Association of Dental Office Management come in, offering courses in dental office administration independent of a full degree program.
Business and Medical Practice Skills Dominate the Curriculum
Office training may include classes such as keyboarding, office software applications, customer service, employee scheduling, and front office procedures. Students also may take courses specific to the industry, such as dental office terminology, dental billing and coding, and the principles of dental insurance. Many programs also require students to take courses in psychology, workplace behavior and/or employee supervision.
Dental office managers also must be prepared for the legal and ethical mandates of the job, so courses in business law, medical ethics, and records management may be part of the program. You will also need to be familiar with federal work safety regulations and with privacy laws such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
General Education Courses Give You an Edge as an Administrator
In addition to these job-related courses, students in associate and bachelor degree programs will also have general education requirements. These may include mandatory classes in subjects such as English, communication, natural sciences, the humanities, and math. Although they might not, at first glance, seem to have much relevance to your role, you’ll appreciate the kind of critical-thinking skills and general perspective that a liberal education will bring to you.
If you are studying at the master’s level, however, you’ll get an extra dose of industry-specific coursework, including in finance, healthcare economics, industry and demographic trends, and larger policy considerations that may affect your business.
At every degree level, you’ll have plenty of options for specific majors to focus on. Although healthcare administration itself is a popular option, you can do equally well with other major areas that offer concentrations or specializations in healthcare, including degrees in business administration, health policy, healthcare services, and more.
Accreditation Offers Assurance of a First-Rate Education
No matter what level you choose to shoot for in your dental office management education, you’ll want to be sure that the colleges you choose has the right accreditation for the degree. Accreditation is simply the process of undergoing a third-party verification of the basic aspects of academic and administrative standards that American consumers and businesses expect.
That’s almost a foregone conclusion for most American schools, which typically hold a general accreditation from one of the seven major regional accrediting organizations operating in the U.S.:
At the master’s level, however, you should also look for a specialty accreditation from CAHME, the Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Management Education. They go further into the specifics of health and medical management skills than general accreditors. Or, if you are going with a business-oriented degree with a healthcare specialization, one of these specialty business accreditors might be the label to look for:
Finally, if you are coming up the route from the practice-side of the business, CODA, or the Commission on Dental Accreditation run by the American Dental Association, is the agency to consider for degrees in dental hygiene or dental assisting.
Dental Office Manager Salary
It’s an aspect of healthcare administration that doesn’t get a lot of consideration, but not only is dental office work important to health and wellness generally, but it’s also lucrative and growing. According to Salary.com, the median salary for a dental office manager in September of 2020 was $76,176, with the top ten percent making more than $99,000 annually. And a market snapshot from 2019 of the North American dental equipment market predicted a compound annual growth rate in the industry of 10 percent. According to the ADA, annual gross billings for dentists in private practice in 2018 ran to more than $717,000 for generalists and just over $1 million for specialists.
Although most graduates in the field will work in private practice, some may also choose to work in other areas of the field like dental product sales, billing and coding, or health information systems management. As with any industry, larger employers are likely to offer higher pay rates, while education and experience will also give a good boost to your bottom line.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn’t track pay rates specific to dental office managers. However, counts them in the category for health and medical services managers, who collected a cool median wage of $115,160 in 2020. BLS also offers some good news for employment prospects in the field, reporting a projected 32 percent growth rate between 2019 and 2029, much faster than the average rate of growth for jobs in the country.
Resources for Dental Office Managers
Becoming a dental office administrator will take you off the beaten path of traditional healthcare administration career progress, which just makes it more important that you find the right organizations and people to help support you along the way. These advocacy and certification bodies are a good first step toward networking and exploring your options in dental health office management:
The American Dental Association
The ADA has been around for more than 160 years. While it is an organization whose membership is restricted to dentists or dental students, the small-practice nature of the industry means that it also pays a lot of attention to business and management concerns. You’ll find plenty of resources on practice management, policy advocacy, and marketing here.
The American Association of Dental Office Managers
AADOM, on the other hand, is aimed squarely at dental office managers and their needs and concerns. You’ll find excellent networking opportunities here, along with educational and advocacy resources for the issues that matter most in the industry. Local chapters give you a regional support system for all the many difficulties that pop up routinely in any kind of office management job. The organization is the only one to offer professional designations for dental practice management professionals in the form of their Fellowship, Mastership, and Diplomate distinctions.
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