Elective and non-urgent dental procedures are now being carried out across the country. Without a shred of doubt, dentists and dental practice owners are happy about this. They believe many of their patients are grateful they are back open, too. However, it is not back to business as usual. There are new mandated policies, protocols, and changes to be implemented to protect all involved.
For starters, the days of packed waiting lobbies, magazines scattered on tables and toys to calm panicky kids, is long gone.
“We have eliminated the waiting room,” says Dr. Shahrooz Yazdani, founder of both Yazdani Family Dentistry and Costello Family Dentistry. All patients visiting their offices now have to remain and wait in their vehicles until the receptionist is ready to bring them right in the operatory. Dr. Yazdani also adds that they have made the transition to contactless and paperless registration and checkout.
Reopening, though, came with some challenges
One of the biggest challenges in dentistry presently is overcoming the COVID-19 related fear. Because dentistry is, naturally, in people’s mouths, the risk of contracting the virus haunts dentists and hygienists every working day.
“There are a lot of queries that remain unanswered according to Chris Lewandowski, DDS, the owner and a dentist at Princess Dentistry. “Dentists don’t want Covid-19 any more than you do. And we are literally working right in your mouth, the most contagious environment possible. So although we practice using the new protocols and the new PPE, we understand that there is no such thing as 100% protection, so we are afraid,” he says.
Previously, dentistry was only concerned with blood borne pathogens as Dr. Leonard S. Gordon, the co-owner of Gordon Center for General & Advanced Dentistry points out. “Now, with COVID-19, we must focus on new protocols regarding airborne pathogens.”
Welcoming back doubtful and fearful patients has also not been an easy job for dentists. “Patients have reservations, and fewer are coming in, and profits per patient are down,” Lewandowski says.
Practices are hopeful, though, of regaining the public trust by having safety precautions in place, in addition to the CDC-provided guidelines.
“Other than enforcing all patients and staff to use hand sanitizers upon entry and exit of our offices and wear masks while in the facility at all times, we've implemented other procedural changes that will help curb the spread of COVID-19,” confirms Dr. Yazdani.
High stakes of reopening linked to increased dental fee
Implementing these safety protocols, however, comes at a steep financial cost, and some offices are passing it on to their patients.
For instance, Dr. Sonal Bhoot, the founder of Dental Expressions Leawood, notes that besides investing in PPE, she had to acquire sterilization tools and install HPA filters in her offices. What’s more, every patient is disinfected completely before and after the treatment.
“Such extra protective measures have made the dental fees “little higher than usual.” Says Dr. Bhoot, who is also an ardent contributor to popular online dental publications such as Sensodyne, Dentistry.co.uk, among others. The fact that dental products also attract high service taxes hasn’t made things easier for practices, since this increases the overall cost of operations. As such, dental offices have no other choice but to charge an additional fee for treatment, according to Dr. Bhoot.
Now, whether the patient will cover that cost by themselves or their insurer will depend on the practice. For example, for dentists who are contracted with leading insurers, things might be a bit different; says Chris Lewandowski, who has not yet increased service fees at his Scottsdale-based practice.
“Although the cost of business went up (we are being gouged like everyone else), our fees remain the same. At least that is the case for dentists who are contracted with the major insurers like Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Metlife and Delta Dental. So Covid-19 is a double whammy,” he explains.
On recruitment, layoff, and furlough
The social distancing and disinfecting procedures have hampered dental practices’ ability to handle patient volumes just like they were doing during pre-COVID times.
“We are down a few patients a week due to the need to space out dental cleanings for the hygienists,” says Dr. Jeff Haddad, who owns Rochester Advanced Dentistry. Though he is also quick to add that his practice deals a lot with high-end full mouth reconstructions, implants and smile makeovers — all of which take several hours — so they never had a crowded lobby, to begin with as it is the norm, in typical dental offices.
Apparently, dental offices rely on patient traffic for revenue. Reduced traffic means they can’t sustain their payroll obligations effectively. “Our normal office hours have been reduced due to reduced demand. It remains to be seen as to the hours that will be sustainable and whether or not we will need to let staff go permanently.” Lewandowski, who is also a cosmetic dentist, says.
However, even with the hard-hitting financial circumstances, a number of dental offices surprisingly have managed to keep all of their employees. “Despite this COVID-19 crisis, we haven’t fired any of the staff,” confirms DR. Sonal Bhoot.
Likewise, the Yazdani Family Dentistry and Costello Family Dentistry founder, Dr. Yazdani says they didn’t fire nor hire anyone after reopening. However, he admits that they had to come up with safer ways of accommodating their whole staff, bearing in mind the social distancing guidelines stipulated by the authorities.
“We had to adjust our hours of operation to accommodate the increase in cleaning that is now required due to COVID,” he says. “We decided to extend our hours from 7:00 AM to 8:30 PM, which required the entire team to take a stance in solidarity, participating in one evening shift a week (this would include the admin staff who do not directly work in the clinic as well).” As a result, Dr. Yazdani proudly attests that his team is safe and happier with the adjustments, and is able to see more patients.
Ensuring success regardless of the tough times
It is evident; things are not rosy for dental practices that have reopened. The positive thing, though, is that there are few ways to keep thriving and guarantee your dental practice’s future health without compromising on the quality of the services you offer.
Build trust by increasing patient communication
From the above dentist’s views, many patients have reservations about visiting dental offices due to the fear of contracting COVID-19. Coronavirus aside, there is even a study that revealed about 60% of patients fear going to see the dentist. Now, one way of alleviating this form of anxiety and fear is by communicating with patients about the impact of COVID-19 on dentistry in a transparent manner.
Give your patients assurance that you are following all OSHA and CDC guidelines. Then boost their confidence more by highlighting the extra steps you and your employees are taking to enhance their safety during this pandemic.
If you have also altered your operating hours, notify them about the changes, so that they can always be attended to conveniently. In short, being proactive in patient communication, and letting them know what you are doing to address their concerns is a practical way to eradicate those reservations they have about visiting your practice.
Provide reassurance to your team and ensure max well-being
Presently, transparency with your dental team is critical. Employees are bound to feel scared or uncertain about their jobs. If you don’t communicate honestly and consistently, they could grow distrustful or imagine the worst. Set up a weekly virtual conference if you are not in a position to hold physical meetings to update them on new developments.
Inform them candidly what impact the pandemic is having on your practice. Are you considering laying-off or furloughing some employees? Will their benefits be affected? Dr. Leonard Gordon, for example, decided to keep his entire staff on full salary. “We know this is not the norm, but as a family-owned practice, it was important for us to pay our team,” he says.
Issues regarding employee’s safety should also be held transparently. Access to PPE and other safety tools should not be overlooked, especially a time like now. In her Leawood practice, Dr. Sonal Bhoot has ensured maximum protection for all her staff and is always checking on their well-being. “Right from prophylactic measures, we have provided proper guidance to every staff and monitor their health frequently,” she says.
Maintaining a successful dental business during a crisis will most notably, require flexibility. Priorities are shifting, and you should be ready for anything. The ideal way to combat this unpredictability is to remain flexible in your operations.
For instance, consider hiring temporary staff on-demand to handle short term dental projects. Perhaps, you are experiencing heavy traffic on weekends or evenings. Or maybe you have a backlog of patient appointments you are scrambling to keep up with. Temps can help to lighten the load.
Your team isn’t available when you really need them? Last-minute day off, sick days, or just flat out quit? You require help instantly to keep your practice-up-and running. Tap into talent wherever and whenever you need it with the help of on-demand staffing platforms.
Avoid capitalizing on the disaster
The phrase “disaster capitalism,” invented by author Naomi Klein, refers to the manner devious businesses use times of crisis or emergency for their ends. Well, it is justifiable to add a small COVID-19 fee on your services, considering the tight circumstances you are operating in. However, ensure the fee is reasonable and you are not taking advantage of the situation.
Be ethical. You may make some quick money now, but the eventual damage isn’t worth it.
COVID-19 doesn’t have to spell doom for your dental practice
Without a doubt, these are abnormal times, and many dental offices will suffer as a result. Nonetheless, as you have seen, there are offices still operating and using their ingenuity to thrive.
Simply, inform your patients the steps you are taking to guarantee their safety, be candid with your team, embrace flexibility, and do not capitalize on the COVID-19 crisis. With these tips in mind, you can thrive and survive in the current environment, as well as in the post-COVID one we seem to be entering.