COVID-19 continues changing the world as we know it. As some establishments begin to open their doors with restrictions, others are navigating the practicalities of successfully doing business in their field. For example, dentists face several challenges when it comes to providing care in the midst of a pandemic.
Here is a detailed look at dentists’ journey in the midst of COVID-19.
Emergency Visits Only
March and April marked the beginning of an unprecedented global phenomenon: in many countries, people began testing positive for COVID-19. As of March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared the Novel Coronavirus Disease a pandemic. Lockdowns swept the globe.
During these first few months of the pandemic, dentists performed emergency procedures only. What constitutes an emergency? “Somebody with uncontrolled bleeding, somebody with significant pain and infection, a broken tooth or … a tooth that comes out of the mouth, or somebody who’s had other trauma to their jaws where they’re having a breathing problem,” Dr. Richard Nagy, president of the California Dental Association (CDA), explains. Broken dentures, orthodontics, and severe bleeding in gums or soft tissues typically entail an emergency as well. Patients uncertain whether they had a dental emergency on their hands were encouraged to call or video chat with dentists to go over their symptoms.
Dentists in the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand all operated this way. New Zealand dentists shared their preference for telehealth appointments, expressing concerns about lack of personal protective equipment (PPE).
During these first few months, dentists continued to provide emergency care with the following increased precautions:
- In the U.S., dentists wore even more PPE, when available. Dentists wore N95 masks or level three surgical masks, face shields, hospital gowns, and sometimes booties and hats.
- Prior to having patients come in, staff screened patients over the phone for potential COVID-19 symptoms.
- Much like hospitals, dentists took patients’ temperatures when they arrived and before treating them.
U.S. dentist offices remained open for emergencies, but with considerably less staff. With fewer patients and less money coming in, many furloughed half or more of their employees. Dentists across the U.S. — and in countries all over the globe — were encouraged to seek out and apply for financial assistance during the beginning stages of the pandemic.
The Very First Steps
As with the rest of the country’s and world’s businesses, dentists could not afford to remain closed forever. In fact, surveys reveal that “the dental profession [was] the hardest hit financially of any graduate-level profession by the Coronavirus.” In fact, according to studentplanner.com, 81% reported a severe income loss.
In addition to tackling emergency procedures, many dentists gave patients the option of scheduling telehealth appointments for non-emergency concerns. In order to take advantage of this service, dentists required those using the service to be established patients or patient referrals. Telehealth appointments required an electronically signed consent form, a briefing about the possibilities and limitations of telehealth, and “a detailed record of the consultation including confirmation of identity, consent to consultation, updates to medical and medication history, presenting symptoms, recommended treatment should be added to the clinical record,” according to the Australian Dental Association (ADA).
While telemedicine is not ideal in dentistry, it was a necessary step to provide care to patients who would have otherwise gone without. In normal circumstances, as many as 20% of kids do not get any dental care. Without teledentistry and other workarounds to provide some level of care, that number was at risk of dropping even lower.
The Way Forward
As of early June, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cleared dentists to begin reopening and scheduling routine appointments. It is now possible to go in for a cleaning or to follow-up on orthodontics. (A surprising 25% of orthodontic patients are adults, making this a popular necessity for people of all ages!) If you make a dental appointment, expect the following for the foreseeable future:
- Dentists will be going out of their way to clean and disinfect tools and surfaces even more often. Dentists may use clear plastic covers over tools when possible.
- Depending on the procedure, your dentist or hygenist may cover your mouth or part of your mouth with a rubber dental dam.
- Staff will schedule fewer appointments per day, with fewer patients in the office at any given time.
- Ask screening questions prior to your appointment. Expect questions about recent travel and whether you have been or may have been in contact with anyone with COVID-19.
- Ask you to arrive exactly on-time or wait in your car or outside instead of in the lobby or waiting room.
- Take your temperature upon arrival.
- Remove common touch items from waiting areas and exam rooms. Dentists may remove magazines, coffee machines, and toys for young children.
- Request that you come to your appointment alone, without young children or romantic partners.
Even with these measures in place, it is ultimately up to you whether you feel comfortable going in for any given procedure. Weigh your options, and ask your dentist what safety measures and extra precautions are in place at their specific location.
If you or your child begin feeling under the weather within 14 days of your appointment, always play it safe and call to reschedule.
Even under the best of circumstances, U.S. men, women, and children do not always get the dental care they need. Remember, partners must pay for child support for children and young adults under the age of 21. Use these funds toward your child’s routine dental appointments if necessary.
Set aside savings for your appointments, too! Remember, dental care often extends beyond the look and feel of your gums and teeth. According to Harvard Medical School, gum disease and heart disease are closely linked. Bacteria in your mouth can travel in your blood and blood vessels, ultimately causing damage to vital organs, like your heart. Take care of your teeth and gums — and keep your dental appointments — to ensure your teeth, gums, and heart stay healthy.