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Ordering supplies: Examine the inventory for the hygiene operatory

June 12, 2015
Inventory management is not included in the curriculum of most dental hygiene programs. 

BY Jannette Whisenhunt, RDH, BS, MEd, PhD

Inventory management is not included in the curriculum of most dental hygiene programs. While students are in school, the clinic is stocked with supplies that seem to appear magically. At our school, students stock shelves in the clinic and in their rooms, but others handle the ordering and inventory control.

Following graduation, some new hygienists might work in offices where the office manager or assistant does the ordering for the whole office. But oftentimes, a hygienist will do the orders for the hygiene department. As a new hygienist, you may have to order your own supplies and instruments, which could be overwhelming if you are not organized and don't have some kind of inventory control system in place.


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When two hygienist friends of mine started Saving Graceys, a business that buys and sells supplies and instruments, they had to start from scratch to get their inventory together. One of them offered some advice on preparing to manage inventory:

"It is [...] important in our office to know our hygiene budget. This is why we started Saving Graceys! Because [dentists] tend to want us to run 'tight,' we have to work within [budgets]," said Vicky Councilman, RDH. "However, we have a job to do and production to account for, so we need equipment [and] supplies often. Knowing the amount of money we have to work with helps us to sequence ordering to plan what gets ordered first."1

Depending on where you work, you may also need to follow a procedure to place your orders. At our school, we follow a requisition-and-purchase-order procedure. The procedure requires obtaining the signatures of approximately five people before the items can be ordered. If you work in a normal dental office-not in a school system-the procedure is probably less convoluted, making it so you can get your order within a few days.

When you begin preparing to make an order, you will want to have an ordering system set up that is easy to manage and that will not take up a great deal of your time. You may want to begin by browsing a dental supply catalog in order to put everything you can think of onto your master list. Include all of the items you use for common procedures-from a child prophy with sealants, to a quad scale with irrigation, and any perio medicaments. Include the name of item, the item number, the cost, the amount of items included (e.g., 12 per box, 144 per case), and how many of each item you use per month. If you use more than one dental supply company, you can simplify your process by making a separate list for each company.

Table 1 is an example of what your master list might look like:

After you complete your master list, you can see how many of each item you use in a month's time. It can be eye-opening to see how many 2x2s you use, and it can give you an idea about how you can save supplies to cut your budget. The bottom line is that dental offices are small businesses, so you want to keep your expenses low. Every little bit helps and makes the office more profitable, improving its ability to stay in business. You will also see how many items need to be ordered to keep a month's worth of supplies in your storage area. Depending on your storage space, you may need to order smaller amounts more often. You may also want to work with anyone else who orders supplies in your office to combine orders and save on shipping.

To help streamline your reordering process, you could put a small reorder card with the item name and number on the last box of an item. Then, when you get to the last box, you can take the card and put it aside. Do the same for any other items that are almost gone. At the end of that week, use the cards to add information to your monthly order list. In addition to helping you to avoid running out of products, this will also simplify your ordering process. When your office decides to order supplies, your order can be ready to go quickly. If more than one hygienist uses the hygiene supplies you order, seek input from the others about the number of items used per month.2 If more than one hygienist uses the same supplies or if some supplies take a while to get in, you may need to place your reorder card on a package prior to the last.

Another option you might consider for reordering is an inventory service, which you may be able to find through your dental supply company. Inventory services allow you to order online, sometimes with automatic shipments or bar code scanners.3 See what is available in your area, and take advantage if you can.

Whenever you are considering ordering a new kind of product, you might benefit from talking to a dental supply company sales representative first. Sales reps will drop by your office, wanting to show you new products and supplies. They can often give you samples of items to try before you buy, which is a great perk. Stopping to speak to a salesperson may not always be convenient, but salespeople can be valuable resources for you. Oftentimes, they can arrange a "lunch and learn" for the staff to introduce new equipment or procedures. They can also keep you updated about any specials that may save the office some money.

Once you have an ordering and reordering system in place, you will need to keep good documentation of what was ordered and when. When an item comes in, mark it off of your list. You should also note whether any items are on backorder. A backordered item is an item that is not delivered with the rest of an order because the company was out of it or because it comes from another source and has to be shipped at another time.3 Documenting backordered items is critical because it allows whoever pays the bills to know what needs to be paid and when. Also, many offices will not want to pay for supplies until all of the items originally ordered are accounted for.

Storage is another part of inventory management. Prior to storing your items, read the manufacturers' instructions. Some items may be OK when stored on a shelf in a closet, while others will need to be refrigerated. Be aware that some items can expire. When restocking a shelf, always put your newest inventory in the back of the line so that you are using your oldest items first. Throwing away supplies is a big "no-no" because it wastes money. It may be tricky to locate the fine line between having enough supplies in stock that you don't run out and having so many supplies in stock that some expire.

Organizing your storage area is also essential to inventory management. It is a good practice to keep all of the same types of items in one area. All paper items can be in one place, while all polishing items can be in another. Labeling the shelves helps those who put supplies away, and it can help you or others to find items when they are needed. Lastly, keeping the shelves neat and orderly will help you to see when your stock is getting low.

At first, inventory control can be confusing, and you may still run out of items. Developing an emergency plan is a good idea. For example, you might identify a way to borrow an item until yours comes in. Most companies can ship items overnight, but that can get expensive for the office if it happens often. Furthermore, be aware of your supply company's return and exchange policies. This knowledge will be useful to you if ever you receive the wrong item!

Finally, while you are developing your inventory management system, be diligent and continue communication with everyone in the office about orders when needed. If everyone uses the system efficiently, it will work like a well-oiled machine. Before you know it, you will be ordering supplies and keeping them stocked with ease. It is just like learning anything else; once you do it a few times, it gets easier.

Happy scaling! RDH


1. Councilman V, Causey P. Saving Graceys. www.savinggraceys.com.
2. Gaylor LJ. The Administrative Dental Assistant. 2nd Ed. St. Louis, MO: Saunders Elsevier; 2007.
3. Bird DL, Robinson DS. Torres and Ehrlich Modern Dental Assisting. 9th Ed. St. Louis, MO: Saunders Elsevier; 2009.

Jannette Whisenhunt, RDH, BS, MEd, PhD, is the Department Chair of Dental Education at Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem, N.C. Dr. Whisenhunt has taught since 1987 in the dental hygiene and dental assisting curricula. She has a love for students and served as the state student advisor for nine years and has won the student Advisor of the Year award from ADHA in the past. Her teaching interests are in oral cancer, ethics, infection control, emergencies and orofacial anatomy. Dr. Whisenhunt also has a small continuing education business where she provides CE courses for dental practices and local associations. She can be reached at [email protected].