Jun 11, 2020 10:25 AM EDT

COVID-19 has Dentist Practices Closed. How is this Affecting Dental Hygienists?

dental hygienist

(Photo : Unsplash)

COVID-19 took the medical sector by surprise and the entire world by storm when it first appeared. Despite being the 7th coronavirus discovered, it was nothing like experts ever saw before. None of the prior 6 coronaviruses were similar to the novelty coronavirus that was identified in December 2019, meaning experts had to do massive research to try and understand how the virus behaves. 

The outbreak is affecting individual and professional lives alike. Businesses are closing down, leaving people wondering if their financial stability and career will survive this pandemic. 

ADA recommended dental practices to cancel all non-emergency appointments, but because of a decrease in demand, offices are closing down one after another. Patients fear making appointments, even in case of emergency, meaning dental hygienists are forced to take an indefinite leave of absence. 

What is happening to the dental industry right now?

The dental industry was greatly affected by the pandemic. Dentistry students are wondering if they can finish their education, demand for appointments is decreasing, conferences have been cancelled and medical supply has been rationed.

As patients fear to get out of the house, mobile dentistry seems to be the most appropriate solution to the current problem. The first National Mobile Dentistry Conference took place at the beginning of March, which also marked the launch of the American Mobile Dentistry Alliance. This is going to be the country's professional association for mobile clinicians. 

However, there are some silver linings as well. The majority of RDH know what proper protective equipment is and how to meet infection control standards in their office, but everything can use an improvement. Most dental professionals believe infection control practices will change, especially as patients will be less likely to ignore those rules. 

Even though some RDHs state they are using this time to deepen their knowledge, fear of the unknown is getting to them as well. Amongst the concerns are:

  • How longer appointment times are going to financially affect them

  • New equipment costs, including advanced filtering systems to deal with aerosols

  • Alternative work options for RDHs

This would be the best time for dentist practice owners to embrace Cloud Dentistry, a business model that aims to connect dentist practices with professionals in the industry. This way, offices can hire dental hygienists and pay them by the hour, allowing them to manage costs in these troubled times. At the same time RDHs can seek employment for the time the offices they were working at are closed. 

What about the financial implications?

A recent survey aimed to uncover how the pandemic has affected the financial and work status of dental professionals and the results were just as we imagined. 97% of dental office owners surveyed were either closed or providing emergency care only, 82% of RDHs applied for unemployment and 22% of them were already diving into their savings. Out of everyone surveyed, only 6% of RDHs are receiving partial or full salaries while offices remain closed.

In March, the Senate passed a legislation package that directly affects dental practice owners. They will be complied to provide 2 weeks of sick leave for staff, if they are falling under any of the following categories:

  • Have been put into quarantine or isolation by the authorities

  • Have been advised to self-quarantine by a medic

  • Are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and await medical diagnosis

  • Are taking care of someone put into quarantine or self-isolation'

  • Need to care for a child if their school or childcare facility is closed

By the looks of it, it seems those falling in any of the aforementioned categories could get 2 weeks of paid sick leave, but that's not exactly the case. The secretary of Labor can exempt businesses that operate with under 50 employees from providing sick leave for those falling into the 5th category, meaning many may have to take unpaid leave if they need to look after their children. 

Are RDHs ready for practices to reopen?

Many practices were financially crippled by the lockdown, which means they need to return to business soon. But are dentists and RDHs ready for reopening? 

Dentists will need to have strong infection control plans in place, starting with proper PPE and patient triage. Although this is the correct thing to do, it does not affect offices any less. When asked, most dental practitioners say they were unaware if their office has started building a strategy for reopening, and that is due to lack of communication between dentists and RDHs. 

26% of practitioners are concerned about whether or not reopening is profitable, giving the fact that appointment rates have decreased significantly. 

The pandemic is affecting newly-qualified dentists as well, as many of them won't get the chance to open their own practice anytime in 2020. This leaves them trying to get a job as a dental hygienist or dentist at an established practice and postpone their long-held dream. 

The outcome may be positive, after all

Even though revenue declines could not be prevented, dental practices may have it better than many other industries. This revenue decline represents not a loss of revenue, but simply a deferral. For example, a product someone does not buy, such as a meal at a restaurant, is lost revenue, but dental issues are not going anyway. They are, if you want to put it this way, piling up in a backlog and waiting for dentist offices to open. 

Tooth decay and dental issues are not going anywhere, and even though there may be some losses, this "backlog" is what will help the industry recover faster than other fields. 

By taking a look at past recessions, we can safely assume they will have far less long-term impact on dental offices than other businesses, and this can only help us remain positive. 

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