February is National Pet Dental Health Month. Twenty-eight glorious days of focusing on good oral health coupled with discounted services, overbooked schedules and exhausted, stressed staff members. How did we get here? Back in the early 2000’s, veterinary practice consultants began advising vets they could keep busy during the slowest times of the year by offering discounts on dentistry services. This got traction and became the national campaign we all know as National Pet Dental Health Month.
It was a great idea at first, but for many animal hospitals it has since morphed into treating dentistry as a seasonal disease rather than treating the number one preventable disease in companion animals all year round. We have made great strides with dentistry since the early 2000’s, but there are still many pitfalls of pet “dental month.” You may not see yourself in these exact scenarios, but below are three main issues that will probably resonate.
There are several pitfalls to giving discounts on procedures, probably the most detrimental of which is the potential of devaluing the importance of oral health as a year-round, lifelong focus. It also trains your clients to wait for a “special” which will diminish the sense of urgency or necessity and cause the client to delay treatment – leaving the pet to suffer until “dental month” rolls around again.
It is very common to see a stark contrast in fees between dentistry and other anesthetic procedures. Keep in mind that time in the dentistry suite is just as valuable as time in the surgical suite. We don’t celebrate “Lipoma Month,” so don’t fall into the trap thinking that dentistry requires less training, equipment, time, and expertise.
If you feel pressured to offer an incentive to get a client to schedule a CORE (Comprehensive Oral and Radiographic Evaluation) procedure, here are some things to consider:
Anything that requires your time, skill and talent should not be discounted. Dental care has a huge impact on a pet’s overall health and that is worth a lot! You are providing incredible value, not only to the pet but the pet parent. The human-animal bond is strong, our pets are a part of our families and good oral health helps them to live long, happy lives.
Discount home care products to encourage and set expectations of that all-important home care regimen.
Recommend CORE procedures when needed by including a thorough oral exam during every physical exam. If you think your clients are driven by discounts, offer a compliance reward if they schedule the procedure the day of the recommendation within the next 30 days (or however long your hospital determines bloodwork is good for). Perform the bloodwork on the day of the recommendation.
These considerations make the clients feel like they are getting a “deal” and is something you can offer all year round, not just in February.
When we ask hospitals what some of their biggest challenges are with dentistry, one of the most common things we hear is they need help with scheduling. Scheduling CORE procedures is a challenge even outside of dental month!
Think about how procedures are being scheduled and who is scheduling them. In many hospitals the client service representatives schedule the procedures with basically no parameters in place. They tend to schedule a set amount of appointments per day without considering what the procedures could involve, causing back-ups and no lunch breaks. And in February, it is all about scheduling as many as possible in order to give the client that discount.
One of the ways we can determine how long a procedure may take is to stage the patient in the exam room and use that to determine the amount of time to block off. Doing it this way can help with potential bottlenecking of the day.
The average CORE procedure takes about 45 minutes. Cats may take less time and the larger dogs take more time but on average we are seeing 45 minutes from start to finish but that is IF there are no significant findings with the radiographs or probing. If all the patients you schedule only needed that, you could likely do five or more each day. But what are the chances of that happening?
Dental procedures are much like birthday presents, you don’t know what you have until you unwrap it! Mouths that don’t look awful upon that initial exam room oral exam can turn into unexpected oral surgery or periodontal therapy once the CORE is performed.
CORE (Stage Zero and 1) 45 minutes
CORE + 30 minutes (Stage 2) These can require more time for cleaning as well as periodontal treatment such as Doxirobe application
CORE + 60 minutes (Stage 3) Multiple extractions
CORE + 90 minutes (Stage 4) Multiple extractions
Squeezing in as many procedures as possible in 28 days causes not just staff fatigue, but stress to get it all done. Next come the aches and pains. Dentistry can be hard on the neck, back, wrists, hands and eyes. Implement proper ergonomics for your dental suite – make sure you have proper seating, lighting, magnification and swivel handpieces on your dental delivery unit to help to alleviate hand fatigue.
An exhausted staff can feel rushed and end up not doing a thorough job. Quality diminishes and when you get into some of those surprise cases that require time, there comes a point of mental and physical exhaustion that can have a negative impact. As a rule, it’s not just the patient we need to be concerned about during those long procedures but also the veterinarian, anything that goes beyond 2 - 2.5 hours should be staged.
Managing stress and fatigue properly prevents burnout and can even reduce staff turnover.
Move the focus from doing as many “dentals” as we can this month to bringing awareness of the importance of oral health care to your clients. Use this time to educate them and promote the concept of Comprehensive Dentistry – practicing prevention over treatment and focusing on how oral care is as important as the rest of the body. Emphasize how consistent oral health care saves them money in the long run and keeps their pets healthy and pain free.
Make it fun, decorate the waiting room, show interesting cases on social media, raffle off a basket of home care products, anything to bring awareness. But remember, when March 1st comes—periodontal disease is still lurking in 80% of your patients, so regardless of the reason for the visit, do the oral exam, stage the mouth and make the recommendation when necessary.
This content is also featured on the Patterson Veterinary blog.