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How data helps hygienists avoid burnout

March 2, 2022
Using data to understand how you're impacting your practice can help you feel confident about better outcomes, seeing yourself as a leader, and more. Katie Poulsen, MPC, RDH, explains how.

Let's talk about the "B" word. You know, "burnout."

If "pandemic" was the word that best described 2020, perhaps "burnout" best describes everything since. Practice team members are feeling the impact of the pandemic in so many ways, with no end in sight.

Burnout is nothing new to our hygienist community. We've always been faced with how to handle the daily monotony of providing hygienic care and treatment to our patients. Trying to do so while also dealing with new safety and clinical requirements, patients with high anxiety, and staff shortages has only exacerbated the problem.

Staffing issues are especially hard right now. Thousands of experienced hygiene professionals have left or are leaving dentistry, and it's not clear there are going to be replacements for them anytime soon. As Dr. David Rice, chief editor of DentistryIQ, recently pointed out, "Like medicine, dentistry studies short, medium, and long-term effects of disease. To date, the most dangerous effect of COVID-19 on the dental profession is the effect it's had on dental teams. Uniting, listening, and addressing the fears that are keeping dental team members from returning to practice is our number one priority."

The solution: Practice intelligence

So, if burnout is the problem, is there a solution? It would be nice to think there was a one-size-fits-all answer to this issue, but such is not the case. Burnout and its causes are far too complex. But there is something that can help many of us better manage the effects of this problem both personally and professionally: practice intelligence. Practice intelligence is a way of describing the impact that metrics or data analytics can have on patient care, team collaboration, and practice profitability. This idea isn't new, but the tools now available to help us see and understand data are more powerful and transformative than ever before.

Related content:

Burnout: The clinical condition making a profound impact on our profession

10 ways for hygienists to avoid burnout

As a hygienist, I've personally seen a huge impact from practice intelligence in at least three important ways: better patient outcomes, more effective treatment routines, and higher job satisfaction. As a member of this community, I want to help my fellow clinicians effectively care for their patients while reducing their risk of mental and physical fatigue. I truly believe these tools can and will make a difference.

Better patient outcomes

Being a hygienist can be monotonous at times; scale, polish, floss, repeat. You know how sometimes you get in your car and drive to a place you've been many times before and when you arrive, you realize you don't have a memory of the trip you just took? Hygiene can be like that.

Our job is full of repetitive tasks with little or no variation. Sometimes our minds may wander to our to-do list, the new series we started binge-watching on Netflix the night before, where we're going to go for lunch in an hour, or any number of other things.

This is just a reality of the work we do, but it shouldn't define the quality of the work we do. This is especially important because doing good work for us means providing the best care to our patients. As the saying goes, "Knowledge is power." The more we know about our patients, the better we'll be at providing them with effective treatment. Likewise, the more we understand what’s happening in the practice, the more impact we'll have on the performance and success of our team.

Data also helps you develop good habits in your routine. Good habits reflect intentionality. Making time to think through your work and your daily goals has a measurable impact on the quality of that work and directly benefits both your patients and the practice.

Here are some of the ways that data helps me more effectively treat my patients. I'm confident they can help you as well.

  • Become more proactive. Using a mobile app on my phone, I can view a list of my patients before I get to the office. This is so helpful for preparing myself to care for each patient. I know who they are and their history and can think about what each patient needs. You can do this, too. At the end of each workday, it's easy to open your practice management system (Open Dental, Dentrix, Eaglesoft, etc.) and view all your patients for the next day so you can start thinking about each one and how to make the most of your time together.
  • Participate in planning. Another way data helps me with my patients is through engaging in a daily huddle. Is this something you’re currently participating in, or do you just attend as a passive observer? Data makes participation so easy. As a team, we all look at the schedule together and talk about patients, opportunities, and successes. Practice intelligence has turned our morning huddle into the most important 15 minutes of our day. As a hygienist, I used to just sit through these meetings without participating. Now I am dialed in to the discussion and sharing my insights and ideas for how to provide optimal care for each patient.

More effective treatment routines

In author James Clear's best-selling book Atomic Habits, he talks about something he calls "critical threshold." The principle is straightforward: "Critical threshold" is the point at which a repetitive behavior becomes a sustainable habit through simple prompts. For example, I've been working on trying to eat more at home instead of at restaurants. To help with this, I've found putting on an apron is enough to "prompt" this change in my routine. This is also applicable to my work as a hygienist. I've created a reminder to review my schedule on my phone at the same time each day. This has now become a habit I practice without needing the reminder.

Data can have a profound impact on how we see ourselves as care providers. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard someone say, “I’m just a hygienist.” I’ve said this about myself more than once. We must stop saying and thinking this, and practice intelligence is a powerful tool to help here. Instead of getting caught up in the mentality that we’re “just” cleaning someone’s teeth, developing a new routine of self-measurement to track improvement can be transformative. Here are just a few of the many questions you could ask yourself to assess how you’re doing:

  • How many of my patients accepted treatment?
  • How many scheduled their next cleaning while still in the practice?
  • What is my average number of visits per hour?
  • How many of my new patients are scheduling their next appointment?
  • How many patients accepted fluoride treatment today?

You could add many more to this list, but be careful not to get overloaded. Start with one or two of these each day and build on them over time. You’ll be amazed by how doing so rejuvenates you.

One of my favorite quotes is from English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead: "Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking of them." This is perfectly applicable to the principle of using data to automate your systems and habits as a hygienist. Doing so will lead to better patient outcomes.

Higher job satisfaction

Caring for our patients is at the heart of our work and purpose. Making sure they’re healthy is why we do what we do. However, if we are always at or near the point of exhaustion, it will be impossible to provide the type of care we're capable of providing.

When I was going to hygiene school, my instructors would always ask me to perform a scale check after I had completed a cleaning. Inevitably I would find something I had missed. Improving your job performance and fulfillment can be similar in its impact. Taking a moment to look again at the work you’re doing and reminding yourself why you’re doing it does much to rejuvenate you and bring back the joy. Using data to measure your performance is the “how” here. In a figurative way, measuring performance to highlight areas of success as well as opportunities for growth is a powerful way to "scale check" your work and find more meaning in what you do.

Practice intelligence can also lead to expanding or even changing your role in the practice. For example, I have a friend who was a dental hygienist for more than 18 years. She had reached a point of burnout in her career and was considering what to do to address that. As she used practice intelligence to assess her impact on the practice, she discovered she had a passion for management and transitioned into a new role as office manager. She brought her insights and background to her new role and is now having a huge impact on the practice, both clinically and culturally.

Hygienists sometimes think of themselves as "just someone who cleans teeth." Admit it—you've probably thought or even expressed this idea before. Data eliminates such limited thinking. Hygienists can now see exactly how much they are impacting the overall practice and should feel confident in using this as a springboard to take a leadership role. You are a leader. Your voice and ideas are invaluable. Now is the time to let them be known.

About the Author

Katie Poulsen, MPC, RDH

Katie Poulsen, MPC, RDH, graduated from Weber State University with a BS in dental hygiene and a master’s in professional communication. Katie has been practicing for 13 years and is also the director of customer marketing for Dental Intelligence. She lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, with her husband and two daughters.