Overcoming viral adversity has led to better utilization of digital technology
Jennifer Bell, DDS
To say that the last year has been interesting would be an understatement. With the COVID-19 pandemic, dentists faced numerous new difficulties in their practices, including issues related to job security, infection control protocols, financial adversity, and more. Now we are experiencing increased challenges related to recruiting, training, and retaining quality staff. Many have chosen not to return to work or have been displaced from the workforce due to fear, school closures, the need to take care of family members, and other factors. Recently, I have observed on numerous dental blogs and discussion groups that dentists are especially struggling to find good administrative support for their offices. Given all of the aforementioned challenges and the overall cost of the business of dentistry, perhaps the way that we do business has to change.
COVID-19 forced many clinicians to become innovative regarding their policies and procedures in order to accommodate new regulations associated with the pandemic. In addition, the regulations forced consumers to interact with businesses in new ways. To capitalize on these newly acceptable methods, some clinicians began to utilize technology platforms in ways that the profession never had before. Let's take a look at a few opportunities that technology is offering clinicians and how they can best be leveraged.
Prior to COVID-19, many dentists were not utilizing the texting feature of our phone service software systems as much as we should have been. Now we text patients through these secure portals, which expedites communication. This service has reduced the number of missed patient phone calls and benefited the patients who procrastinate about scheduling appointments because they simply do not want to pick up the phone and call. Now we are able to meet these patients where they are most comfortable communicating.
In addition to providing the ability to reach patients via their personal cell phones in a secure and discreet manner, texting software has also and enabled practices to utilize the parking lot as a waiting room, sending patients a quick text when it is time to welcome them inside, and opened doors to offer new payment options through text messaging. Team members are able to connect with patients via text from anywhere in the office, which really enhances everyone's ability to communicate and keep appointments on time.
Now I find myself getting frustrated when I go to other businesses that do not have the ability to text me to let me know that they are ready for my appointment. Dental practice management software service companies have really become industry leaders in providing us with texting capabilities for communication.
Work From Home
When COVID-19 regulations required dental offices to limit their appointments to emergencies or shut down altogether, many dentists were motivated to find creative solutions to continue offering services and communicate with patients. We equipped most of our front desk team members with laptops and phones. Because we use a voice over internet protocol system, they were able to work from home to accomplish most of the functions required of their roles at the practice. Using a remote login service or a cloud-based dental operating system allows team members to be productive even when they are outside of the four walls of the office.
I often wonder if the majority of dental practices will move to having fewer team members on site, which would allow them to reduce the amount of real estate used for administrative activities and convert it into more productive clinical space. The idea of dental practices using centralized call centers is growing in popularity in the profession as well, so this concept of remote administrative support is likely here to stay. I believe that there are cost savings and efficiencies to be realized in this business model, and offices will be forced to consider them as they face growing staffing shortages, lower reimbursement schedules, and higher overhead demands.
Another effect of the pandemic was to reduce the number of individuals that we were able to have in the building. In order to maintain proper social distancing, screening protocols, and an acceptable risk of exposure, most patients were required to attend their appointments alone. Having software systems in place that facilitated the use of digital consent forms, health history updates, and treatment plans that could be completed from patients' cell phones or a sanitized office iPad improved our ability to get proper documentation uploaded quickly without the hassle of printing and scanning. We were even able to obtain signed consent forms and other documentation from parents who were waiting in their cars outside of the office. This technology has had such a significant effect on efficiency that it is hard to imagine going back to the old way of operating.
Many dentists are experiencing the benefits of teledentistry as a tool to conduct postoperative evaluations, consultations, and treatment plan reviews as well as to answer questions from patients. Because physical interaction is required in the provision of dental care, teledentistry will obviously never replace the practice of in-person dentistry; however, it may help to reduce the number of in-office visits required of patients for "discussion-driven" appointments. Although COVID-19 increased the cost of changing over a room in between patients due to the need for increased infection control protocols, the cost associated with breaking down and setting up a room prior to the pandemic was approximately $50 to $75 per patient appointment depending on the extent of the protocols employed. For visits that don't involve production. such as postoperative follow-ups and consultations, this can be an unnecessary drain on the overhead of the office and put additional stress on the team. Teledentistry allows clinicians to manage patients from a location of their choosing, which helps offices keep overhead in check.
I'm not sure what the future of teledentistry will actually look like for clinicians, but consumers are increasingly comfortable with this type of service, and I expect that we will see demand for it increase going forward. This trend has even been reflected in the new CDT code updates that have been approved for 2021. Clinicians should consider beginning to introduce teledentistry options to patients by utilizing the online scheduling and digital communication platforms that are available in the dental industry.
Innovate Locally, Benefit Globally
As we saw during the 1980s with the effect that the HIV/AIDS epidemic had on dentistry, clinicians seem to be ready and willing to adapt to a changing environment. Because many of us still operate at a very local level, innovation and adaptation can happen quickly to move the practice of dentistry forward. Perhaps the fact that many practices are still locally owned and operated contributed to dentistry's ability to handle this pandemic so smoothly. Sure, we received some bumps and bruises along the way, but we innovated and developed better ways of doing business that I believe will benefit our profession in the years to come.
About the Author
Jennifer Bell, DDS, is a fellow of the Academy of General Dentistry and maintains a private practice in Holly Springs, North Carolina.