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Smart Shopping

May 1, 2004
Whether it's a scrap of paper or computerized, inventory control doesn't have to be overwhelming.

by Cappy C. Snider, RDH

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Dental hygienists have many responsibilities, including maintaining our operatories, implementing or maintaining an effective periodontal program, or scheduling patients in our continuing-care system. Many of us are also in charge of ordering the supplies for our various duties. For those new to the profession, or for those taking on this responsibility for the first time, here are some tips I've learned over the years.

The stress of getting through each workday is overwhelming enough without worrying about supplies. Stress increases when a necessary item is out of stock. An effective inventory control system in invaluable, and it doesn't have to be complicated. A simple piece of paper taped to the inside of the supply cabinet can be just as effective as an inventory control on a computer.

The trick is to note when something is taken from stock and put into service. Also, note how much product is left when restocking your room. When something is low, make a note to reorder it. It also helps to keep a record of order dates and product costs. This helps track when a supply is received and how much of a product is being used. Another trick for tracking supplies is to place a note on the container of items. In some offices, the person using the last item is required to add the product to the purchasing list.

Another way to ensure an adequate supply of an often-used product is to sign up for an automatic shipment plan. Many manufacturers have plans available for products such as toothbrushes, antimicrobial mouth rinses, floss, and other supplies. A significant cost savings is generally available when products are ordered this way, and most dental practices appreciate this benefit. Ask about volume discounts when ordering often-used supplies because the savings can add up by ordering a little extra stock.

While it's easy to rely on one supplier for provisions, it's a good idea to shop around for the best products and competitive prices. Many smaller manufacturers and supply companies also offer great products. Online searches and networking with other dental professionals can yield some great sources. Call manufacturers and request a catalog. Most are happy to share literature promoting their products.

However, there is something to be said for simplifying your ordering system. Using one supplier as a primary source often decreases order headaches. The sales representative is familiar with your office and your preferences for different supplies. A rep can keep you abreast of new products and provide samples. Even if you spend a little more for a particular product from this salesperson, individualized customer service can be the payoff. The ease in returning a disliked product or ordering error is well worth the extra pennies.

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If I hit a sore spot by mentioning the word "salesperson" in the last paragraph, let me say that there are some great people in sales who can be a good source of information. Granted, there are also pushy salespeople who drop in and take up your valuable time at the worst part of your day. There is a remedy for these folks. Have the appointment coordinator arrange an appointment just like your time is reserved for patients. This is to both party's advantage because the salesperson doesn't have to wait in the reception area while you accommodate patients.

Knowledgeable salespeople can answer most questions you have about their products, help with advice on third-party reimbursement codes for using the product, and even suggest how to present the product to the patient. Learning how to incorporate new products into our arsenal can be challenging, so allow these professionals to share their expertise. An extra bonus may be the ever popular "lunch and learn." Many sales representatives provide lunch for the staff while giving a presentation about their products, a fun way to introduce the entire staff to new products.

The sales rep can also be helpful with community projects. These folks often have a stockpile of samples they are willing to share to support your project. It's always nice to give out samples during a presentation.

Keep in mind that these individuals represent a company that wants you to buy their products. Their sales pitch can be very convincing. As with any new information, it's important to investigate the claims and critically read the research findings. Companies invest a lot of money in research and want us to see a positive outcome, even if the results were less than stellar.

Advertisements for products come from every direction and can be difficult to sort through. I have learned that most manufacturers will send a few samples if you ask for them. My co-workers are amazed at all the free stuff I get just by asking. If something intriguing comes my way, I look for a phone or fax number or web address to contact the company. Also, asking for their catalog can help you find new and interesting products.

Several companies have toll-free numbers to call just for samples. This is a great service for patients who would not ordinarily purchase a special product you recommend. Trying a product is often enough to persuade patients of the benefits of an item.

Whether or not you do your own ordering, keeping an eye on the bottom line is important. While we focus on patient care, the dental office is still a business that needs to be financially healthy. Draining the budget with frivolous spending never impresses employers.

I realize there is the flip side to that coin, though. Many of my fellow hygienists struggle to keep an adequate supply of the basics to get through the day. In some offices, ordering new instruments takes an act of Congress, let alone asking for a new piece of equipment.

I encourage you not to settle for a workplace that forces you to practice with substandard instruments and equipment. Compromising your health and values is never a positive position in which to put yourself.

Do not rule out purchasing equipment yourself if it means maintaining your health and career. There are arguments on both sides of this issue. You need to decide for yourself if the benefits outweigh the negatives. Remember that at the end of the day, you are the one who goes home with the aching back, neck, and wrists. You are the one who suffers, and your misery will affect all those around you.

Investing in your well-being both physically and mentally is money well spent. We can serve our patients and employers in a more positive way when we have taken care of ourselves first.

Cappy C. Snider, RDH, graduated from Tarrant County College in 1987. She has practiced continually for the past 15 years. Snider currently practices clinical dental hygiene with Dr. Brooke Porter of Azle Dental Care in Azle, Texas. She may be reached by email at [email protected].