What to Look for in an In-Person Dental Education Program

In-person education is back. We look at what makes in-person training worth the time and expense and what types of programs benefit clinicians the most.

In-person education is back, but what makes in-person training worth the time and expense and what types of programs benefit clinicians the most?

Brent Garvin, Director of Product Training for Planmeca, says accountability is a significant benefit for in-person education events. The environment requires attendees to show up and pay attention. "They can't just walk away and grab something out of the fridge," Garvin says. "If they stand up at an in-person event, they will draw attention to themselves."

William Lee, DDS, private-practice clinician in San Francisco and Chair of the California Dental Association's (CDA) Board of Managers, agrees fewer distractions are a strength of in-person training. In addition, the networking and hands-on opportunities benefit clinicians, something he missed during the pandemic.

"We work very siloed," Dr Lee says. "So, when you go to these meetings, you see your colleagues that you haven't seen in a long time. I'm an instructor, so I see my students who have graduated. Also, there is an opportunity to go to the exhibit hall that you don't get in a virtual meeting. You can try products and instruments with vendors and companies and play with the equipment before buying it."

Anna Singh, DMD, Senior Vice President of Clinical Operations at Heartland Dental, says peer-to-peer learning in and out of the classroom benefits in-person learning. In addition, the in-person camaraderie education facilitates sharing best practices and best use cases, which is an essential part of the learning process.

"It's like the watercooler conversation in an office setting," Dr Singh says. "When you are all together, you're able to make personal connections and share with people a little bit more about you. It's hard to do that in a virtual format."

"Whenever we get doctors together, it's the best thing we love about hands-on, in-person training," Garvin agrees. "It's the opportunity for clinicians to come together to create a community, to bounce ideas off each other. Most of the learning we hope happens in the classroom. But much of the training they get is after hours when breaking bread and enjoying each other's company."

Dr Lee oversees “CDA Presents The Art and Science of Dentistry,” the biannual meeting for dental professionals that offers continuing education (CE) opportunities, networking, and an expansive exhibit hall. He thinks in-person instruction also provides a different interaction with the speaker.

"It's the dynamics of being there and having the opportunity to go up to the speaker afterward and ask a question, which you don't have in a virtual component," Dr Lee says.

"At CDA Presents, you are talking about thousands of attendees and an exhibit hall where you can go check out products and services one or attendees might be considering purchasing. It's a cool experience," Sarah Gargani, Director of CDA's Learning & Development, says, adding a different level of engagement to in-person education exists over virtual. "To see someone in front of you physically has a whole other magic to it."

Meredith Gantos, DDS, MAGD, private-practice clinician in Naperville, IL, says learning from leaders in the field and dentists on a similar path with the same pain points, challenges, and growth opportunities is also a benefit to in-person education. Plus, clinicians can try technology before they buy.

"This saves money, time, and stress," Dr Gantos says.

Lisa Thompson, CDA, RDA, Midmark® Dental Clinical Service Manager, says in-person education also benefits clinicians who want to delegate some learning to third-party educators. As an educator who teaches dental assisting, she says some proficiencies are better hands-on.

"Sending the team out to experts in education is helpful," Thompson says.

Midmark also offers in-office training options. This in-person education significantly benefits the ability to customize training for a specific practice, Thompson says. Often, the educator has worked with other dental practices and understands the roadblocks that can occur and how to troubleshoot challenges. Professional educators also understand different learning styles and can adapt to convey the message.

"Someone who is trained to educate has a better chance of evaluating the needs of the individual who is learning and getting the learning to stick," Thompson says.

When In-Person is Better Than Virtual

Dr Gantos says that any hands-on component does need to be in person. It's essential to get direct input from an instructor and have a resource close by to be critical of one's work.

"The best courses are ones where you walk away with a new skill that you can apply the next day in the office, but this can only be gleaned with a practical component," Dr Gantos says.

Dr Gantos also thinks lecture-based programs benefit from a physical presence. Dr Gantos says a set schedule and timeline for the lecture is more straightforward to comply with than an online program with greater flexibility.

"From my experience, online education always sounds good in theory, but I never find the time to complete the things I sign up for," Dr Gantos says. "I need the accountability of in-person classes to carve the time out in my schedule and stick to it."

Garvin thinks anything that requires a tactile feel is suited to in-person education. For example, scanning techniques training in person allows Planmeca trainers to correct hand positions or how much force the clinicians use.

"Training on hardware is much better in person," Garvin says. "We have faster comprehension, and it's more efficient because we can react to them, see their face and visual cues, stand over their shoulder and point to the screen or move the mouse. We can control the training environment much more easily when we're face-to-face with them rather than through a computer screen."

Thompson agrees that new technology coming into the office is better served by in-person training. Getting in early on the learning curve and practice implementation is essential. Teams can see that other people have gone through the challenge of learning something new and came out okay on the other side. This interaction is informal but essential to engagement.

"Without engagement, it becomes the proverbial coat hanger because no one wants to use it," Thompson says.

"You can't learn how to utilize technology appropriately without getting your hands on it," Dr Gantos agrees. "This hands-on experience allows providers to leverage the technology to the fullest and feel more comfortable and confident when they head back to their office."

Garvin also believes that hands-on training with new technology is essential for implementation. The Planmeca Education Center in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, includes a 50-seat auditorium, 2 16-seat classrooms, and additional training rooms for breakouts. The Planmeca Digital Academy is the hub for in-person digital dentistry training for dental professionals and distributors. Post-pandemic in-person training is held in the facility every month and sometimes twice a month. They are also expanding their offerings to be more inclusive. Next year, Planmeca will expand programs to be more inclusive, adding entirely Spanish-language sessions.

Garvin says they keep lectures to a minimum at these in-person training events. For example, an 8-hour training will have 1 hour of class and 7 hours of running through sample scenarios and, sometimes, cases one of the attendees brought.

"It's pure, hands-on, over-the-shoulder taught tasks. Trainers and coaches are floating in the room, helping them understand the software and how to use it so they can go back to their office on Monday and execute it," Garvin says.

Dr Singh adds that leadership training is excellent for in-person education. The combination of the audience and speaker creates energy that inspires people. Dr Singh has seen a lot of speakers develop fan followings because of how they connect with and excite the audience.

"Leadership training is not a lot of note-taking. It's more about interacting with each other and sharing best practices," Dr Singh says.

Dr Singh has seen speakers that can generate excitement about doing a type of dentistry. The expert's passion for the technique and sharing it with others becomes aspirational to the audience. Also, in-person education programs like these inspire the team when they are together, making the program a team-building event.

"When you bring your team, and some of those learnings happen, the teams grow, and your patients will truly benefit from that," Dr Singh says.

Returning to What Was Missing During COVID

Dr Gantos says she missed the in-person community education helps clinicians build. The community becomes the best resource for bouncing ideas off, troubleshooting, or problem-solving.

"Dentistry can often feel like a lonely profession," Dr Gantos says. "Developing these connections with others creates a more collaborative approach to a field that can often feel isolating."

Dr Gantos also missed having first-hand feedback from a highly skilled instructor, which is invaluable for honing new skills. Having someone share what worked best for their success and what pitfalls to avoid is much more meaningful. Dr Gantos says that over-the-shoulder training cannot be replicated virtually or at home the same way it can in person.

The change of environment is something she craved, too. She struggles to get into the proper mental learning space at her practice or at home. Instead, she finds new settings conducive to learning something new.

"When I am in a classroom or unfamiliar setting, however, I am mentally more alert and prepared to synthesize new information," Dr Gantos explains. "I am also less distracted and sidetracked outside my comfort zone."

Gargani says members want more hands-on courses to hone their clinical skills. Attendees like sitting in a workshop environment and to learn hands-on with the ability to ask the instructor or the dentist sitting next to them a question.

"It's that kind of cohort learning environment where you're going through something together to learn something new. To do that in the virtual environment would have to be highly orchestrated, sending out supplies in advance. So, to do that in person is highly efficient and satisfying for the learner," Gargani says.

However, the CDA does not believe that in-person versus virtual education is an either/or proposition. Instead, they see a blend of both types to provide the best possible experience. Their members agree. At the September CDA Presents in San Francisco, many of the livestream attendees (40%) were also in-person attendees on a different day.

"One of the best things that has come out of the last 2 years is we're learning how to leverage those 2 mediums together," Gargani says.

Dr Singh agrees a blend of virtual and in-person learning is the future of education. Heartland Dental is exploring HyFlex options, where both live and virtual education is happening simultaneously. Dr Singh thinks blended possibilities like this provide the benefits of both in-person and virtual education programs.

"Technology has changed so much, all of that, so there will be a lot of blending happening," Dr Singh says

Heartland also focuses on the feedback they get from its audience surveys to improve in-person education events. The purpose is to enhance their presenters and enable their education programs to deliver results-producing action. Dr Singh says you can't provide a high-quality, in-person product if you're not listening to your audience

"We have evolved into experiences. So how do we create an experience of learning from the start when we give them a tag to the time they exit? That's the whole experience we're looking at," Dr Singh says.

Thompson says she missed the personal interactions, the "hugs, and handshakes" of in-person education that were not possible during the pandemic. A lover of trade shows, she enjoyed seeing the same faces every year, even if they were now in a different booth.

While in-person education is getting back to how they were before the pandemic, there are some lingering effects. The staffing issue environment prevalent in many dental practices makes in-office training essential to help manage the stress of a new process or product. Midmark has individualized, per-product, full-day in-office training with dental clinician instructors who "walk the walk and talk the talk" to help the team and doctors with their practice-specific recommendations.

"They can assess what is needed," Thompson says of the instructors. "Sometimes it's silly stuff like they get backed up because there are 2 people there at the same time, which is a logistics problem. Or they might recommend different scheduling workflows to solve the problem. Without in-person training, you could not identify these moments."

As a trainer, Garvin missed the camaraderie of bringing everybody together during the pandemic. However, everyone learning a new skill or technology is in the same boat, creating a sense of togetherness that wasn't the same in virtual settings. He also appreciates the energy that comes from teaching in-person that can resume now that in-person education is returning to pre-pandemic levels.

"The redundancy of getting on a virtual zoom meeting again, pressing play, and having a script is just not fun," Garvin says. "The ability to bring everybody together to bounce ideas off each other freely because you're in an environment that creates that excitement takes the conversation to a whole other level that you could never have done when you were doing this online."