Have you heard this one?
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
It’s a deep cut from Tolstoy and referred to as the “Anna Karenina principle.” It refers to how poor performance in any one of a number of categories can kill an entire relationship. You might also know it as the reason you left your last dental lab. Lab expense can be the second biggest line item for dentists monthly—it’s why nailing the relationship with your lab matters. About 22 percent of dentists switch labs because of poor communication.
And let’s be real, there’s much of dysfunction out there. In this post, we lay out a practical guide to building a strong and effective partnership with your lab in 3 steps:
- Evaluating and choosing the right dental lab
- Keys to daily communication with your lab
- Using technology to communicate better with your dental lab
Evaluating and Choosing the right dental lab
Finding a lab that is a good fit from the start ensures a smooth relationship in the long run. On top of looking at dental lab reviews and getting referrals from colleagues, you can do some additional detective work to make a decision. Just because a lab places splashy ads or works with a brand name KOL does not mean it’s the right lab for you. Go beyond price and image to determine the best partner for your practice:
- Visit prospective dental labs with the whole team
According to Daxton Grubb, owner of R-Dent lab in Memphis, “it’s important to get to know the techs and managers on a personal level”. Grubb encourages dentists to take “field trips” with the whole staff to tour labs and build consensus around a decision. The team should ask themselves: Would I want to work here? Touring a facility first hand provides the opportunity to see the lab’s technology and materials and ask good questions.
- Is the lab certified? Are the lab techs certified?
Finding out if the lab has been nationally certified and where the technicians have been certified is vital information. A lab that has Certified Dental Laboratory (CDL) status is a good sign. Similarly, dentists should ask if lab technicians have Certified Dental Technician (CDT) status. This voluntary certification is the only one recognized by the American Dental Association. If esthetics are important, you might look for AACD accreditation with your CDTs. Dental labs can also achieve the rigorous DAMAS (quality control and assurance) certification.
- What materials does the lab use?
As the National Association of Dental Labs (NADL) points out in its “What’s in Your Mouth?” campaign, the materials used by and training of professionals are important to labs, dentists and their patients. For the best clinical outcomes, you should ask the lab about which materials are used and the expected longevity of restorations. Getting aligned with your lab on your preferences for quality materials should be more important than price initially. Once you both agree on materials and quality, price can be further negotiated. You want a lab that is proud of their material choices and can provide historical evidence of clinical success.
- Daxton Grubb points out that labs can specialize in specific materials, “Learn what materials & techniques they prefer and why: every lab has different “strengths” and “weaknesses” with certain materials by their talent and technology. For example, one lab may be better with layered zirconia over emax, and vice versa.”
- How are recalls handled?
Recalls happen, and it’s important to know how a lab responds. How are they alerted of recalls? Will they pass this information along to your office?
- Prep and cementation requirements?
Find out what your dental lab requires when it comes to prep and cementation. Many labs will also provide a “preferences” doc that you can fill out before your first case—this will help set expectations.
- What types of impressions does the lab accept?
If you are using digital impressions, make sure your lab accepts scans from your scanning system. Most digital labs will provide you with a page that lists their digital partners. Your lab can also be a good partner when you are evaluating which scanner to buy. But if you ask most labs candidly, they will tell you that whether you are using a digital or traditional impression method, nothing can save you from your own competence at taking an impression. Look for a lab that will provide good feedback on impressions.
Keys to Daily Communication with your dental lab
How do you master the day-to-day communication with your lab? This continued communication is the only thing that can transform a relationship between dentist and lab into true long-term collaboration.
- Monthly check-ins with your lab
Schedule a standing call monthly with your dental lab. Address recent cases and any issues with fit, patient feedback and remakes. This is also a great time to ask: “How are my impressions?” A good lab will give you honest feedback and if your team is not providing quality impressions (whether traditional or digital), the lab may be struggling to create accurate restorations.
- More communication is always better
Grubb advises his dentists that “more is always better” when it comes to case documentation. Send Photos, completed RX slips, and diagnostic wax-ups/pre-op models. While it might take a few more minutes, it could save hours of chair time in the long run.
- Reach out for complicated cases
Complex cases or large orders of four units or more may require additional communication. Reach out to your lab directly with instructions or patient information that can help them create accurate restorations. This builds a positive relationship in addition to providing details that may be difficult to communicate with only a written prescription.
- Use your lab as an educational partner
Tap the educational resources your lab provides—things like webinars and case presentations can be value-add sources of practice education and CE. Also take time to schedule “lunch and learns” with your lab to address key topics or AOC (areas of concern). This kind of in-person discussion can strengthen your relationship and improve your outcomes.
- Seek and provide feedback
Move your relationship with your lab from vendor to partner by continually seeking and providing feedback. If your lab is not interested in this kind of relationship, find a lab that is.
Using technology to communicate more effectively with your dental lab
Just as digital scanning technology improves restorative outcomes and saves time, digital technology is improving the way dentists and labs communicate. When using any communication platform, make sure you tailor your content to the medium and follow HIPAA guidelines.
- Free video messaging apps
Apps like Skype and Facetime enable you to combine live video with chat to address an immediate issue visually with a restoration. For complex cases, you might want to have three or more people in different offices on the discussion — Google Hangouts enable you to conference in multiple people with video, screen sharing, text and file sharing.
- Texting apps
There are multiple secure text apps like WhatsApp or the iMessage platform on iOS that enable you to snap a quick picture and text it to your lab with a message. This provides immediate connection.
- Lab client portals
Many labs run management software that provides dentists with easy-to-use client portals. These portals handle every aspect of the relationship from case submission to billing and reporting. They are also secure communication channels. Look for labs that provide a cloud-based portal for easy communication.
Finding a new dental lab is costly and it takes time that you likely don’t have. Daxton Grubb believes that working through communication issues is always the best place to start:
“Don’t “hop labs”. Work through issues, if at all possible. Often you can be running from an issue on your end, and just making the “expense” of that issue cost more and take longer to fix. Also, by working through issues, it helps us improve our relationship as well as learn and grow together.”