Humorist P.J. O’Rourke once quipped, “When you think of the good old days, think one word: dentistry.” To be sure, when it was practiced long ago — when it was actually practiced at all — dentistry was a presumably unpleasant affair that involved tools that easily could’ve doubled as interrogation devices.
Obviously, we’ve come a long way since then, thanks in part to the work of organizations such as InterDent, a provider of dental practice management services. For this firm, providing sound learning programs is a matter of course. The organization exists to help dentistry offices run their administrative, financial and operational functions more efficiently, which necessitates a great deal of education.
“We don’t employ dentists — we support them,” said Maureen Winningham, InterDent director of education. “The overall training philosophy is to offer a variety of ways for a variety of learners to get the information they need to practice great dentistry or to support those who practice great dentistry.
The services within InterDent’s network of about 700 affiliated providers include specialty areas such as orthodontics, periodontics, prosthodontics and oral surgery, as well as general dentistry. It’s partitioned into 12 regions and three divisions that cover eight states: Arizona, California, Hawaii, Kansas, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon and Washington.
In addition to this geographically dispersed learning population, Winningham and her team are responsible for developing InterDent’s 2,000 office and corporate personnel through InterDent’s LMS, Gentle Dental University.
As recently as a year ago, though, this wasn’t the case. The learning model was highly decentralized before the recent launch of the corporate university, which presented constant challenges regarding standardization, communication and geography.
“Previously, all of our 12 regions were doing their own training, arranging their own speakers and had their own focuses,” Winningham said. “I’ve only been here a year. I remember when Lee (Rouman, chief information officer) and I interviewed, and I met our CEO and CFO. They knew investing in the development in all of our staff is part of our growth and our future as a company. They didn’t just say that in the interview to woo me — they really believe that, and I have received nothing but support since I got here.”
One of Winningham’s first actions as director of education was to find out exactly what the learners’ expectations were.
“When I first came aboard, I knew about learning and technology, but I needed to know about the field of dentistry,” she said. “So, the first thing I did was partner with the chief clinical officer to do a massive clinical needs assessment, and that got into the hands of almost every provider in the company. I needed to know what would make them a better dentist: what they wanted to learn, how they wanted to learn it, when they wanted to learn it, how far they were willing to drive to learn it and what technologies they were comfortable with in learning environments.”
What she found was a very skilled, knowledgeable, diverse learning population. To accommodate these sundry individuals, and the various tasks they have to perform, Winningham employed a blended learning approach.
“We had some dentists who were just embarking on their careers and were really comfortable with technology. Elliot (Masie) calls them the ‘Google Generation’ — they love on-demand learning,” Winningham said. “At the same time, dentistry is a real skill set. Dentistry and IT are very similar in the fact that they both change at lightning speed.”
She also said new technologies and products in dentistry are coming up so fast, it’s hard to keep up. As a result, effective training needs to be hands on.
“There are certain things you can’t master unless you have the tools right there at your disposal,” she said. “To do that and to let learners control when they want to learn, the platform for all our training is our Gentle Dental University LMS, which is hosted by Learn.com. What’s good about that is that it integrates with WebEx, which has been an awesome tool because of our geographically dispersed workforce.
“We also have off-the-shelf e-learning modules for things such as Microsoft classes. Those are there to support the corporate staff and office staff. We have e-learning modules on our dental resource center, which is an offshoot of Gentle Dental University. That has more than 200 e-learning modules, from practice management to orthodontics, and is mainly funded by our partner vendors.”
Gentle Dental University also has several instructor-led courses. These include live events held on a regional basis, as well as virtual instructor-led training (VILT) courses posted to its online portal.
“My philosophy is to go to them,” Winningham said. “If I take a dentist out of the field to come train, then they’re losing time. Quite frankly, they should be focusing on the patient. I’m doing my job if they are able to focus on great patient care. We also make sure it’s during off-hours.”
Winningham relies on a strategy she terms “multi-tiered marketing” to raise awareness of and participation in Gentle Dental University’s learning programs. Because the learners are often very busy, she promotes educational offerings and events in many ways so the message will get to them.
The metrics around the university demonstrate it’s having an impact on the internal and external learning populations. In the first six months following the launch of online learning on its dental resource center, usage went up 120 percent per month on average, Winningham said.
“The numbers are showing that they’re responding, and this is just the tip of the iceberg — as our technical infrastructure gets stronger and stronger, more people will get on and learn,” she said. “As for the standardization of our ILT regionally, those numbers are also incredibly exciting. In all of 2006, we trained about 350 doctors and affiliated providers.”
Anecdotal evidence for Gentle Dental University also has been positive, Winningham said. “I had one provider who told me a story about wanting to learn about a new dentistry product while he literally had the patient in the chair,” she said. “He went on to Gentle Dental University’s dental resource center, took an eight-minute e-learning module and then used this new adhesive product. He later said, ‘I’ll never forget it now — that’s the best way to learn. It’s like having a salesperson in the office to train me when I want them.’”
Winningham said many more learning programs will be delivered via technical platforms mainly because of the widely scattered audience.
“We’re trying to be very learner-centered and on-demand,” she said. “We have been working to build our technical infrastructure to support the e-learning initiatives. Our main goal was to leverage that technology to train a geographically dispersed workforce.”
These virtual courses will continue to be offered in brief modules because, as Winningham puts it, “The mind can only absorb what the butt can endure.”
Additionally, new programs will cover learner-driven subject matter. “Based on the clinical needs assessments, we’re looking at the top four topics that we needed to focus on,” Winningham said. “Planning ahead for 2007, we’re now focusing on a topic per quarter. All of our doctors are invited to the exact same training, so they’ll have an educational platform to work from.”
These initiatives are crucial for InterDent because, ultimately, the company is only as good as its employees and dental affiliates, Winningham said.
“We want to have the best dentists and the best affiliated providers for our patients because it’s really all about them,” she said. “There is no other major dental management provider in the country that’s offering the kind of learning and technology we are. The more education our affiliated providers have, the better service they provide to patients. That contributes to our bottom line too.”
The senior leaders at InterDent, including Rouman, also see it that way.
“We don’t look to Maureen to justify the expense of an educational program,” Rouman said. “We expect that the strategy of delivering this education will produce a positive benefit for the company. Her job is not one of justifying every dollar spent — it’s one of executing a high-quality program to satisfy what’s obviously been a pent-up demand both in our offices and our affiliated providers. It’s really a strategic initiative, as opposed to a cost-justification situation. That’s truly our view of this.”
– Brian Summerfield, email@example.com