When life gives you lemons make lemonade! So said Dr. Robert Crim, Smile Brands Chief Dental Officer, when faced with the challenge of how to provide Continuing Education during a pandemic. Pre-COVID, Smile Brands regularly hosted local doctor meetings with vendor-supported CE courses throughout the year and at the company’s Annual Leadership Team Meeting, but, when social distancing made in-person training impossible, Dr. Crim and Dr. Mohamed Harunani, Director of Clinical Education, had to get creative.

As it turns out, in-person trainings had their disadvantages. Providers frequently had to drive cross-town in rush hour traffic after a full day treating patients to attend CE events, and Smile Brands suppliers would incur a lot of costs flying speakers around the country for courses that often only included 20-30 doctors. Last Spring, Crim started talking to Smile Brands vendors about pivoting to a virtual CE model. In June, he partnered with Implant Direct to test the appeal of virtual CE, and it took hold immediately.

“I was astonished to see nearly 400 doctors register for our first event,” explained Dr. Crim. “My mailbox was flooded with messages from providers excited about how much easier it was to participate and making suggestions for future courses. Our suppliers were equally enthused about the opportunity to share their expertise with such a large and eager audience.”

After Smile Brands joined forces with Midwest Dental in late 2020, Drs. Crim and Harunani set out to create a 52-week virtual curriculum with CE courses expressly designed to cover all aspects of dentistry and to appeal to providers at different stages of their careers. Smile Brands has over 1200 affiliated providers ranging from new grads to 30+-year veterans and specialists. A one-size-fits-all curriculum couldn’t possibly provide the proper growth platform for such a diverse provider base. The new virtual curriculum includes:

  • Basic Skills Refinement Courses – Aimed at helping newer doctors speed their learning curve and more seasoned providers master newer technologies. The Comprehensive New Patient Exam is a popular course in this series.
  • Advanced Procedure Training – For mid-career dentists interested in learning new procedures such as Fixed Prosthetic Continuum: Crown and Bridge with Implants.
  • Hygienist-Specific Courses – Monthly CE courses including Understanding Clear Aligner Parameters: A Team Approach to Patient Education are designed specifically for expanding hygiene skills.
  • Dental Assistant Track – A full DA curriculum is under development and will be added in January 2022.

While each course is developed with a specific audience in mind, all team members are encouraged to join any course they’re interested in. Having broader team participation can be especially helpful when covering the less-clinical aspects of the trainings such as how to position the advantages of certain procedures with patients.

It’s now been over a year since the pandemic forced Smile Brands to go virtual with its CE, and the program continues to gain momentum. Quality courses taught by high-profile industry experts are on the calendar each week with registrations consistently in the 300-400 range. One reason for this success is that suppliers are continually finding ways to make the sessions both engaging and informative.

Use of Breakout Sessions: By leveraging the breakout session feature available on most virtual meeting tools, suppliers have been able to create a more intimate training experience. Attendees are sent to breakout rooms led by the vendors’ regional support representatives to help build relationships at the local level and facilitate Q&A. Providers who’ve interacted with vendor reps in breakout sessions are much more likely to reach out when and if they need in-office support.

Combining Online/Offline Modalities: Sometimes nothing can take the place of hands-on training, but clever suppliers have figured out ways to create hands-on experiences as part of a virtual training by sending training kits and tools to registered attendees prior to the training date. At a recent Implant Direct training event, half the providers attended the in-person training in Las Vegas while the other half opted for the “virtual hands-on training.” Both groups gave the session high marks and both have successfully started placing their first implants.

Smile Brands has always promoted a “Never Stop Learning” mindset. In recruiting new affiliates, the organization assesses candidates based on both current capabilities and an appetite for continuing to grow their skills base. The newly expanded virtual curriculum enables each clinical team member to customize a learning plan based on their own strengths and interests.

“Because our providers now have so many CE courses to choose from, I see them really taking ownership of their clinical development,” describes Dr. Crim. “Not only are they participating at levels I never would have dreamt possible, but they are going back to their practices and applying the learning more than ever before. While there’s no doubt that the pandemic has resulted in a lot of hardship over the past eighteen months, the growth of our virtual CE program has been a silver-lining here at Smile Brands.”