The Importance of Sharp Dental Instruments in DSOs

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In a busy dental office, it’s easy to prioritize the office’s many duties based on how directly they impact production. Often the sharpening of instruments may be neglected for these reasons, possibly left to times of patient cancellation. There seems to be a timeless disagreement between hygienists and dentists on the importance and necessity of time spent caring for the instruments for patient care, but the sharpness of your instruments can impact various aspects of your office. From patient discomfort to hand, wrist, neck, and shoulder pain, to inefficient calculus removal, and time wasted with inefficient scaling, there is no argument that sharp instruments are crucial to excellent patient care and longevity in a hygienist’s career.

When an instrument is dull, it doesn’t allow a grab or “bite” into the calculus, which causes the hygienists to compensate by pushing harder to remove the hard deposit. This is uncomfortable to the patient, the hygienists, and results in calculus that is burnished or requires more strokes to remove. Overtime, dull instruments can result in strained wrist, neck, and back pain, leading to possible workman’s comp claims.

It may feel like a waste of time and money to allow adequate time to sharpen instruments or even encourage proper sharpening stones, tools, or services, but the cost of having dull, ineffective equipment can prove to be a higher cost in the long-term. One of those costs can be patient retention or referrals. If the procedure is uncomfortable because the hygienists are having to use added pressure to compensate for the dull instrument, this is uncomfortable for patients. The patient may not understand why their “cleanings” are painful and blame a “heavy-handed” hygienist, but they know that they don’t want to be there and are not going to tell their friends and family about the practice. When a hygienist can adequately remove hard deposits, quickly and efficiently, there is more time to chat about other treatment options or services the practice may offer. Not to mention, if the hygienist is not able to manage biofilm and remove the hard deposits efficiently, the patient may feel like their issues are not resolving, get frustrated, and eventually leave the practice.

DSO Benefits to Sharpening

Employee retention
If your hygienists are given the instruments to keep them healthy, to perform their job efficiently, and keep patients healthy, they will feel valued by the practice. Talented hygienists are in demand, and they are attracted to offices that give them proper tools to achieve success, attract and retain excellent hygienists and keep them healthy and producing. Money spent on instruments is an investment in your top producers and saves time and money from replacing hygienists.

Instruments last longer
This may seem obvious, but when instruments are properly maintained, they will last longer and are replaced less often. Purchasing quality instruments, providing proper education on sharpening techniques, giving time to perform sharpening techniques, or sending instruments off to be sharpened can save time and money in the long-term.

Depending on your practice, patient population, number of dental hygienists, etc., there will be better times than others to sharpen instruments. Setting time aside just before the patient is brought back to put a quick edge on the instrument, sharpen a few kits at once and then re-sterilize, or sharpen after patient care—though this is not recommended by the Centers for Disease Control. Instead, sharpening is recommended when instruments are sterile to decrease the chance of being stuck with a dirty instrument. There have even been designated clinicians who do the sharpening because they are consistent, enjoy doing it, and see the value.

If sharpening your own instruments isn’t feasible for your office, there is also an array of third-party services that offer sharpening. PDT has its own sharpening service, where you simply ship your dull instruments to them. The same expert craftspeople that sharpen the brand-new instruments will resharpen your dull ones and directly send them back to you. While no third-party service will be as rapid as in-office sharpening, having a few extra sets of instruments will ensure that you do not sacrifice production or patient care.

If there are multiple clinicians sharpening instruments, standardization will be crucial. If numerous people are freehand sharpening, there is no way to standardize the process, and each scaler could end up with multiple edges. My ideal suggestions would be to send scalers off for sharpening services and/or use a tool like the Gleason Guide from PDT. Ensuring a perfect 110-degree angle each time an instrument is sharpened is difficult, especially if adequate time is not given, and the sharpening is done quickly between patients. Using a guide will allow the hygienist to sharpen faster, easier, and keep consistent edges on the instrument. The Gleason Guide allows for the clinician to use a pendulum swing while sharpening the instrument. The pendulum swing allows for the entire working edge to be sharpened and not just the tip of the instrument.

While sharpening your instruments will greatly extend their lifespan, they eventually need to be replaced. Instead of letting them sit in a drawer, why not recycle them and get something for them as well? With PDT’s EarthCare recycling program, you can receive 1 free PDT instrument of your choice for every 12 instruments recycled. The instruments you send in don’t even have to be PDT instruments to receive free ones back! PDT craftspeople will recondition any salvageable instruments and donate them to more than 400 missions worldwide, and any instruments beyond repair will be properly recycled to reduce waste.

Instrument sharpening and finding the time in the day can seem like a waste of time, but there is no doubt, the patient and clinician both lose when instruments are not in good working condition. Scalers are one of the critical tools in patient care. Caring for them can allow better care of our patients and our team!

Watch the Video to Learn More

Linda Miller of PDT show us how to sharpen a Montana Jack using PDT's Gleason Guide


Michelle Strange, RDH, MSDH. is a practicing dental hygienist, surgical assistant and adjunct faculty member. Written by Michelle Strange, RDH, MSDH. Michelle is a practicing dental hygienist, surgical assistant and adjunct faculty member. She feels the most important part of her career is the volunteer work she does in her community and globally. She has been in dentistry since 2000 and believes in life-long learning as a dental hygienist with a strong focus on patient education.


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