The threats to dental practices as we come out of lockdown

COVIDJohnny Minford looks at the biggest of the current threats to dental practices as lockdown eases.

As we went through last autumn, progressing past the sometimes confusing messages given during that lockdown, there was a hopefulness in the air that practising would continue to get more straightforward. Few thought it would be ‘back to normal’ after Christmas. Some thought at least there might have been some sort of clearer path through the woods.

We hoped to avoid the January lockdown. It has meant that we need to adapt, yet again.

Initially we were getting reports of substantial cancellations as the public heeded the ‘stay-at-home’ instruction. This has quickly eased for most.

Practices have developed their patient communication systems over the last year, and were able to quickly dispel patient fears.

These systems and procedures are always evolving; sometimes the use of suitable staff on the phone to ensure a full book is more effective than furloughing. It is essential to make sure they are trained, and saying the right things!

Standard operating procedures

Forward-looking practices have made the best of these new patient communication techniques a permanent fixture in their surgeries; a standard operating procedure which will continue after COVID-19.

In respect of the patient throughput, practices have generally adapted well. Some of the equipment bought has a specific purpose and a limited lifespan. Some kit will be incorporated into a new operating style.

We occasionally talk to clinicians who are confusing the two; clinic operation post pandemic is not simply the COVID-19 clinic just becoming more efficient. You will need to leave some pandemic measures behind.

The post-pandemic practice is a non-pandemic practice. It should not be held back by systems that belong to the high-COVID-19 age.

At the moment though, it is the very direct impact of COVID-19 on staff where clinics are finding most difficulties.

A dental surgery is no different from any other group of people – some people who work there will get COVID-19 and they will be absent from work.

It is this, shielding, self-isolation and absence through lack of childcare facilities that is having the largest impact on practice operations. These direct consequences of COVID-19 are hampering the ability to keep surgeries open, and smoothly deliver the treatments patients need.

This huge cause of uncertainty and disruption in the day-to-day working is causing great stress particularly in NHS practices with targets to hit, and with little reassurance of ‘understanding’ emanating from the NHS. 

Managing the practice

Clearly the team can be kept as safe as possible while in the practice, but that security stops at the surgery door. Essentially, it is out of the dentist’s hands at that stage.

Many practices enhanced their training and guidelines to keep their team safe, and able to work.

Do anything that you can. Organisation of the team is the domain of the practice manager, and strained situations are real opportunities to see the strengths and weaknesses in the practice’s systems and procedures.

Of course, an obviously organised clinic has a beneficial knock-on effect in patient confidence, and seeing a practice in control has a long-term impact on a patient’s sense of trust.

Keeping in touch with the team, continual explanation and feedback of the practice’s position, enhanced intra-team information, and increased collaboration will reduce the occurrence of the unexpected.

Flexibility and increased collaboration are the weapons to use; it is for the principals and their practice managers to create the environment for this to flourish.

This article first appeared in Private Dentistry magazine. You can read the latest issue here.

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