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08.12.05 Issue #179
All The Right Moves

Risa Pollack-Simon, CMC

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Over 45 years ago, it was no surprise to witness a multitude of musculoskeletal disorders in the dental profession. After all, dentists shared space with barbers, as they provided services on their feet all day. Paradoxically, in the mid 50's, (even after the evolution of sit-down dentistry became the standard of care), musculoskeletal stress factors continued to develop.

To make matters worse, organized dentistry continued to ignore the scientific evidence that linked musculoskeletal disorders to poor postures and work habits. This encouraged dental professionals to look the other way, as the numbers of those inflicted multiplied.

In fact, awareness only increased when dentists, hygienists and assistants, personally experienced chronic pain, and then were forced to pay attention. This led to University studies, which revealed musculoskeletal stress to be a much bigger problem than anyone was willing to admit. Take a good look at the numbers from a study out of British Columbia , Vancouver , to see if you'd increase these percentages:

Pain Experienced By Dentists
61 % neck
51% lower back
44 % shoulder
43% upper back
38 % hand
30% mid back
14% arm
10% leg

Our profession was fascinated by this study, which also revealed that dentists actually experienced less pain when they understood how to optimize their treatment room equipment, and the proper use of surgical magnification. Furthermore, this study found dentists practicing four-handed dentistry to have much less shoulder pain.

Adjunctive studies also proved that a fully trained chairside assistant could increase the doctor's level of productivity up to 100% - while improving the quality of care provided and significantly reducing operator stress.

Yet, while these somewhat simple modes of operation are readily available, most clinicians take the path of least resistance, which is to do nothing but proclaim that “pain and suffering are a ‘packaged deal' in dentistry, that comes with the territory” – and, if you believe that, indeed it does!

Moreover, physicians, chiropractors and even physical therapists ignorantly reinforced these assumptions, by also believing that pain was a byproduct in the dental profession. Shamefully though, as they promoted their services to relieve the pain, the relief was found to be only temporary.

While holding good intentions, most of these healthcare professionals simply don't have enough information about dental practice operations to “crack the mold” on our bad habits. Bottom line, they've been trained to treat the symptoms; not to diagnose and correct problematic ‘habits' that cause the symptoms in the first place!

While pain can be akin to ‘Morris Code,' in that it signals the body to alert us that a problem exists, when we ignore the message, structural changes can occur, which can end up damaging tissue and cause varied degrees of musculoskeletal disease over time. If intervention efforts are not employed quickly (to reduce inflammation) healing will not occur at the initial stage of soft tissue damage, which then causes chronic disease to develop.

Combine these unknown risks with the “fuzzy math” we've been told are “associated costs” in developing an ergonomic program - and it's no wonder our profession waits until they are literally forced to hang-up their handpiece, prophy jet or suction tip for the very last time before action is taken.

The sad truth is that no one even talks about the hidden gem of increased revenue, for ergonomics is as much about achieving optimal levels of efficiency, as it is about supporting musculoskeletal health - if not more!

Ironically, if you think you can't afford to buy a telephone headset for your appointment coordinator, a new stool for your assistant, or surgical magnification for yourself (or hygienist); the inefficiency you continue to create, will end-up costing you 10x's more!

Truth be known, over 85% of what's called for here is behaviorally modifiable. Simply put; it boils down to changing habits – poor work habits to be exact. The good news is that changing habits (even though they take time to ‘re-wire' themselves) - are free for the asking!

The choice is yours. You have the power to be proactive . You can either act now, or pay later. Stop looking the other way. Listen to what your body is telling you. Hear the cry of those clinicians who were forced to leave the field, as they remind us that, “the pain of work restriction (and loss of income) are far greater than the pain suffered from the musculoskeletal disorder itself!” Embrace an ergonomic philosophy as if your life depended on it. At the very least, your level of efficiency and profitability does!

Risa Simon is a certified management consultant, national speaker and published author of “All The Right Moves” dedicated to supporting team harmony, organizational efficiency and increased profitability through a higher level of ergonomic awareness.

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