Dianne Sig

Transitioning to the business area

May 1, 2018
Dianne Watterson, RDH, advises a dental hygienist who is considering a career transition into a position as an office administrator.
Office administrators keep things running smoothly

Dianne Glasscoe Watterson, RDH, BS, MBA

Dear Dianne,

I’ve been a hygienist for almost 20 years. A few years ago, I switched from being a full-time hygienist to a part-time hygienist/treatment plan coordinator. Now I would like to transition to become a full-time office manager.

Is that feasible at all? I am looking for management courses to take, and I would like your feedback. Any suggestions where to start would be a big help and much appreciated.

Atlantic Hygienist

Dear Atlantic,

I believe hygienists have the potential to make awesome office administrators, primarily because of their extensive knowledge of the clinical side of the practice. Obviously, there is an advantage when the office administrator understands clinical dentistry. I know of several hygienists that have gone on to become office administrators.

My first job in a dental office was at the front desk. I was the sole business assistant in a one-doctor practice for four years, and then I went to hygiene school. So, I gained valuable, firsthand knowledge of the pressures that come to bear on business assistants. Every dental hygienist needs to work at least one full day at the business desk in order to understand the challenges that business assistants face.

The office administrator must understand every position at the business desk and be able to temporarily fill that position if needed. The business desk is the nerve center of the practice, so having the right people with proper training helps ensure that things run smoothly. If the business desk is unorganized or under/overstaffed, the office will be chaotic. Without a doubt, the office administrator must be thoroughly proficient with the office practice management software.

The smooth functioning of the business desk is just one responsibility for the office administrator. The office administrator is responsible for many aspects of business operation. This position is unique because this employee is part of management. Desirable traits for an effective office administrator include maturity, good organizational skills, integrity, dedication to the business, good people skills, business skills gained through experience and education, and good problem-solving capabilities (see sidebar).

It is important to stress that some people simply do not have the personality traits or temperament to be an office administrator. Business skills are only a portion of what is needed for success. An effective office administrator has to be a good listener, giving full attention to what other people are saying, taking time to understand the points being made, asking questions as appropriate, and not interrupting at inappropriate times. The office administrator must be even-tempered and not a “hot head” who is given to bursts of temper. Also, an effective office administrator must be able to motivate, develop, and direct people as they work without micromanaging. This also includes identifying the best people for a particular job.

In my experience, I have found the best office administrators are firm, yet graceful.

The office administrator must understand that he or she is in a unique position, standing in the middle between management and staff members. While still a staff member, the office administrator has access to highly sensitive business information that most doctors keep very close to their chest, including wage information. A breach of confidentiality is the kiss of death for an office administrator.

Three areas of responsibility for an office administrator
Team management

• Ensures the practice is HR-compliant.

• Manages the hiring system

• Conducts performance appraisals and salary reviews

• Deals with conflict resolution

• Celebrates and acknowledges achievement

• Coordinates and schedules team meetings


• Systems management

• Patient management

• Facility management (for example, leasehold improvement coordination)

• Project management (for example, working with consultant)

• Marketing coordination

Financial Health

• Annual planning

• Production/collection analysis

• Accounts receivable analysis

• Expense monitoring (QuickBooks, etc.)

• Liaison between doctors and accountant, banker, insurance broker, pension administrator, dental sales reps, etc.

Formal business education is not mandatory for an office administrator, but the reality is that formal education makes a person more rounded and seasoned. Many multi-doctor offices want an office administrator with an MBA or at least a four-year degree. When I decided that I wanted to transition into practice management consulting and speaking, I did not have any formal business education. So, I went back to school and earned my bachelor’s in human service management. A few years later, I earned an MBA (master’s in business administration). Even the Apostle Paul admonished us to “study to show ourselves approved, a worker that does not need to be ashamed…” (2 Timothy 2:15). I believe my business education has opened doors in speaking and consulting that otherwise would not have been available.

If you do not have any formal business education, I recommend you start with QuickBooks. You could use QB with your own personal finances to learn it, and I recommend you take some QB courses. Be prepared to invest financially in education that will help you reach your goal.

I do not recommend the office administrator position for offices unless there are multiple doctors. As offices grow large, they need more people to staff them properly. The office administrator takes pressure off the doctors in managing many aspects of the business, especially staffing.

There are several reasons clinical hygienists desire to stretch beyond chairside hygiene. One reason is physical pain. Even with using good ergonomics and practicing wisely, clinical dental hygiene takes a physical toll over the years. I know a number of hygienists that have experienced debilitating repetitive motion problems from practicing clinical dental hygiene, especially hand, arm, neck and back problems. So, the transition away from chairside hygiene is a necessity for some hygienists. Chronic back pain was one of my motivators for going back to school.

Another reason is simply a desire to learn and grow. It is my observation that some hygienists simply become bored with clinical hygiene over the years. Many hygienists develop an “itch” to do something other than chairside hygiene but still want to remain in dentistry. Dental business management, whether in consulting or office administration, is an interesting and challenging field.

So, as you can see, the office administrator carries a heavy responsibility for seeing that the office runs smoothly. With the plethora of duties, I can guarantee that you will never be bored! I urge you to get all the business education you can, read good management books, and attend continuing education courses on management if you have the opportunity.

If any of our readers would like a copy of a job description for an office administrator, I’ll be happy to share that complimentary. Please send an email to [email protected] to request the document.

All the best,

DIANNE GLASSCOE WATTERSON,RDH, BS, MBA, is an award-winning author, speaker, and consultant. She has published hundreds of articles, numerous textbook chapters, and three books. Dianne’s new DVD on instrument sharpening is now available on her website at wattersonspeaks.com under the “Products” tab. Visit her website for information about upcoming speaking engagements. Dianne may be contacted at (336) 472-3515 or by e-mail at [email protected].