The helping hand that’s supported us through COVID-19

COVID-19 helping handPrincipal dentist, Anu Jawahar, talks to Sarah Barnard about the support she has had to manage the situation since coronavirus broke out.

There has been a seismic shift in the provision of dental services since the outbreak of COVID-19. Undoubtedly there have been times when it has felt overwhelming for most of us.

This ‘new normal’ is likely to go on for at least the next few weeks and dentists are finding their own ways through in line with government guidelines. To find out more about how dentists are managing I asked Anu Jawahar, principal dentist at Hurst Dental Practice, to share her experience about what her practice has done, the support she has had and how she feels about the future.

What was the immediate impact of COVID-19 on the practice?

Anu: The immediate impact was the sudden closure of the practice. Before the lockdown, we were monitoring the safety precautions and we introduced a pre-dental questionnaire to identify and rule out any possible COVID-19 carriers. We had strict cross-infection measures in place with distance seating arrangements, reception check-in and a hand sanitiser station.

What were your biggest challenges during this time?

Anu: The biggest challenge was our inability to treat those patients who needed urgent treatment. Our primary concern was patients’ wellbeing.

The next biggest challenge was the question of whether we could survive with the loss of business revenue and the existing outgoings. I had no clue how to cope with the emerging situation and I was anxious about retaining the team and how to support during this open-ended closed period. I felt responsible for my team who are like my family.

More than my financial position, the needs of the business and the employees had been my priority, challenge and worry.

As a business, we had invested in our telecommunications and IT and we had the best people on board. I knew from the start that remote care/teledentistry is possible, in accordance with advice.

How did you decide what to tackle first?

Anu: We held our staff meeting and decided our plan of action. Everyone in the team understood the emerging situation and was supportive as to how to operate. We prepared and discussed a business continuity plan.

I constantly told myself that everyone was in the same boat and that I had to keep a clear head.

Practice Plan had by then sent numerous emails and relevant information. The UK government were doing press releases but the Practice Plan COVID-19 Resource Hub gave me a sense of direction and guidance on how to best proceed.

This helped me to understand how to divide the duties. Our primary aim was patient care, without which we cannot work. Our secondary aim was how to remain afloat.

My practice manager took charge of delegating to the team and undertaking the administrative side. A dentist and nurse were on-call, three of our staff were furloughed and I was left to cover the financial impact, cash flow and outgoings.

How did you find the support from Practice Plan during the pandemic?

Anu: There was no communications from any other authority, apart from the advice on closure of business. Practice Plan has been excellent. We had regular emails from you, Sarah, about all the updates to the online Resource Hub and the advice on there is really multi-dimensional; it has resources on patient care, cancellations, how to have conversations with patients, etc.

With staff being furloughed and a skeletal structure in place, the onus was on me to steady my ship. We had a few patients cancelling their membership plan subscriptions soon after COVID-19. Like many others, it was overwhelming dealing with this. I imagined the worst – that many of the patients will cancel their membership plan and this will mean a shocking financial assault on my business.

Practice Plan provides numerous helpful resources but the single best thing was: ‘The guide to retaining patients’. It was clear, transparent, simple and ethical.

While I have great chairside manners, talking about money is something I have never felt comfortable with. I take pride in ethical marketing and dentistry. Ringing patients to ask about their cancellation was an awkward conversation to have.

Practice Plan held my hand (virtually) to come out of my comfort zone and I was able to retain 80% of the patients that contacted us to cancel their membership plan. I felt a surge of positivity not from retaining patients, but because I felt more connected to my individual patients’ situations.

Patients were very appreciative that I was talking to them and really grateful of the offer of a payment holiday. They were genuinely moved that we were giving options instead of saying a binary yes or no. Slowly, I felt this was not going to be as bad as I had first feared. While patients may intend to cancel, I could have a conversation with them and help them make the correct decision for them.

There was overwhelming information from various sources, but Practice Plan single-handedly restored my positivity. I have always told my patients that I believe in Practice Plan and this has only reinforced my beliefs.

What are your thoughts on the admin fee reduction that Practice Plan offered?

Anu: This reduction in admin fee of 50% for April and May equates to an increase in cash flow. This was a huge relief and probably the only financial aid on offer to my business at the beginning of the crisis. And, thankfully, it did not involve sending tens of emails or calling up on the phone for hours.

It was a bonus that I never expected. We often perceive the business world as greedy and self-centred, but that’s clearly not the case here.

What are your thoughts on the future in terms of recovering the business from this crisis?

Anu: I am feeling positive and keeping my expectations realistic. I have a tentative road map of how to deal with resuming normal practice. And I am constantly updating the plan whenever there is new information available.

Again, the Practice Plan webinars and Resource Hub are immensely helpful and my go-to-place for reference.

It is going to be a long haul for all of us. I love my job, I miss my dentistry and my team way too much, but I have all the will and commitment to take my team to greater heights and provide the best ethical dental care I can deliver. Besides, if I have a blip, I can count on Practice Plan to virtually hold my hand, again. I can’t thank them enough.

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