Is there a crisis in dental nursing?

Is there a crisis in dental nursing?Neel Kothari explores the recruitment issues in dental nursing right now and the factors fuelling the current crisis. 

Despite the title, let me start off by stating the glaringly obvious. It has perhaps never been a better time to be a dental nurse in the history of dentistry. Hospitals, community services, dental practices and locum agencies are crying out for their services. Perhaps finally dental nurses may get the pay and respect that for some has been long overdue.

So why are there so few? Well, it’s easy to look at a single aspect like wages and draw obvious comparisons with that offered by other industries for what is perceived as easier work. But having spoken to several dental nurses, in my opinion the reasons are far more nuanced.

Time and time again, issues crop up such as not being able to work in a team environment, not having enough time for a cup of tea or loo break and having to fight for respect when it should be a given.

Supportive working

A former dental nurse who wishes to remain anonymous told me: ‘Dental nursing is a massive task to be paid so little with such little respect’.

She also observed interesting differences between recruitment for dental nurses and associate dentists. For example adverts for dentists often state what the practice can offer them. Equipment like Itero scanners and rotary endodontic instruments. Whereas adverts for nurses often state what is expected from them and not necessarily what the practice can provide. For example a supportive working environment, flexible working for those with families and mental health support if needed etc.

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The former nurse also points out the frustration of seeing adverts suggesting a range of pay and not knowing exactly what’s on offer for them until they are someway through the recruitment process.

In addition, organisations like the NHS are riddled with so-called ‘complexity bias’. This leads to countless forms, tick boxes, CPD (with often questionable benefit) and a raft of decontamination and sterilisation guidance written in such a convoluted way that it’s easier to read software terms and conditions.

Sudden void

In my experience many dental nurses are not maintaining their GDC registration, which ordinarily is not a problem. However it now feels like there is a sudden void.

The issues are compounded by nationwide shortages in talent affecting other industries who are not only able to poach some of our more experienced nurses through better pay and conditions, but also many of those who would have otherwise entered the profession as trainees.

For this reason, it’s my opinion that the crisis in dental nursing with time is likely to be far worse than I had previously imagined. Unless of course the UK decides to ease restrictions on immigration.

As demand for dental nurse recruitment increases, many nurses have made the leap from employment to that of a self-employed locum. This further reduces the numbers available for employment.

Reverse the trend

However, as one locum nurse recently stated, the benefits are less than she was expecting. Her previous place of work has now increased their nurses’ pay, perhaps signifying that we may be reaching an equilibrium of sorts.

So, is there a crisis in dental nursing? Or have practices been too slow to adapt to the needs of our fellow colleagues? I don’t actually have an answer to this. I suspect it very much depends on which side of the fence you are sitting on.

As a practice owner myself, writing this article hasn’t been easy. But it’s increasingly clear to me that unless we in the profession adapt and start addressing nurses’ issues and concerns, it is unlikely we will reverse the trend of nurses leaving the profession anytime soon.


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