On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus outbreak to be a worldwide pandemic. On March 13, the President of the United States announced a national emergency in light of the global COVID-19 pandemic. In the following days and months, life in America and around the world dramatically changed as nations adjusted economies, businesses, industries, educational institutions, and lifestyles to address the invisible threat of COVID-19. Social distancing, self-quarantine, sheltering in place, massive layoffs, and remote work became the new normal.
With most of the United States under lockdown, only essential businesses and activities were permitted. In many states, dental practices closed their doors except for emergency procedures. These emergency procedures include treatment for serious gum infections, excessive pain, injuries to the teeth and gums, and resolving issues affecting chewing that could lead to malnutrition. Elective procedures were discouraged.
Addressing some of these concerns, the CDC issued the following statement: "CDC Guidance for Providing Dental Care During COVID-19: In order to protect staff and preserve personal protective equipment and patient care supplies, as well as expand available hospital capacity during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that dental facilities postpone elective procedures, surgeries, and non-urgent dental visits, and prioritize urgent and emergency visits and procedures now and for the coming several weeks."
The statement further stipulated, "If a dental facility is not able to follow this interim guidance, dental personnel, and medical providers should work together to determine an appropriate facility for treatment. The urgency and need for a procedure are decisions based on clinical judgment and should be made on a case-by-case basis. This is an emerging, rapidly evolving situation and CDC will continue to update this guidance as more information becomes available."
A local news source in the Triangle area, ABC11 Eyewitness News, posted this headline describing the situation on the ground for local dentists: "Coronavirus NC: Dentists scale back on work they'll do during COVID-19 crisis."
The article quoted a local Raleigh dentist, Dr. Justin Russo, who said, "COVID-19 has basically flipped us on our heads." He went on to comment that there are only a handful of procedures that he would perform. The article mentioned that Russo is still meeting and treating virtually. Like much of the healthcare industry, teleconferencing has provided a way for doctors and patients to address healthcare issues via the internet.
A statement from a North Carolina health news source is telling. "Though many dentists across the state have stopped doing routine cleanings, elective surgery, and some of their other non-urgent care during the COVID-19 pandemic, some continue to provide emergency service. By doing so, the dentists can help to keep those patients from seeking care in emergency rooms across the state, preserving as many resources as possible to care for those affected by any swift-moving and highly contagious coronavirus outbreaks."
The statement makes the following points:
- The COVID-19 pandemic shut down most of the 200,000 dental practices across the United States. Of the 2,900 practices in North Carolina, most were, like Dr. Russo, only treating a "handful of cases." The economic impact on the dentists, staff, and patients will not be fully understood for years to come.
- Emergency procedures may be performed in an environment that conforms to CDC guidelines. Crowns probably can be repaired or replaced. Root canals receive an antibiotic, which will ease the pain and swelling for about three weeks. Dentists may face an avalanche of patients as the industry comes back online over the summer. Patients may choose not to have elective cosmetic surgery in light of the economy. Even worse, some patients needing immediate treatment for lingering conditions may let the situation aggravate over time until gum disease sets in or the tooth must be pulled.
- Patients who need emergency procedures may have to seek aid in hospital emergency rooms if their dentist has closed the doors to the practice during the pandemic. With offices opening under restrictive guidelines involving social distancing, dentists may lose patients to other practices or to the emergency room. If COVID-19 is still lurking, elderly people with underlying health conditions may put themselves at risk by going to the emergency room.
Dental practices are utilizing telehealth technology to address patient concerns. Issues revolving around HIPAA compliance, patient confidentiality, and cybersecurity swirl in the confusion created by the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. Telehealth is a viable avenue to address patient needs as the industry ramps up to meet the backlog of patient needs. Relaxation of stringent HIPAA regulations has opened up the use of telehealth, and with a possible second round of COVID-19 looming in late summer and fall, the tool is here to stay.
IT management, cybersecurity, software applications, and adequate hardware can best be handled by outsourcing to qualified, experienced IT management solutions professionals. Configuring the best system with the appropriate software in conjunction with VoIP ensures the best telehealth experience for doctors and patients. Will dentistry return to normal? It never stopped being normal. What is normal? Normal is dentists and their staff committed to providing caring service, great smiles, and a safe environment. COVID-19 never changed that normal.
For more information about dental office technology and managed IT solutions to cope with the challenges of COVID-19, visit Mobile Computer Services, Inc. of Raleigh on the web at https://www.ncmobilecomputerservices.com/locations/raleigh. To speak with an IT solution professional, call (919) 830-9448.