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Dentistry is not nonessential

May 21, 2020
Dr. Richard H. Nagelberg says the basics of proper infection control and safe dentistry have been in place in dental practices all along. So why should dentistry be relegated to nonessential status during the COVID-19 pandemic?

The decision to classify dental offices as nonessential during the coronavirus pandemic, and limit office visits to emergency care, puts us back 30 years or more—back when dentistry was considered necessary only when someone had a toothache. I am reminded of the statement some years ago by the US Surgeon General which essentially said there cannot be overall health without oral health.

The dental profession has been using PPE, high-volume suction, autoclaving, disinfecting, and many of the other protocols that need to be in place in this new world in which we now live. Yes, some of the items we use will have to change—including N95 masks, etc.—but the basic practices and behaviors for infection control and safe dentistry are already in place.

The soft opening protocols advocated when the all-clear is sounded could have been implemented all along—longer appointment times, staggered appointments, no one in the reception area, check in by phone from the car, use of thermometers, front desk counter shields, and so on. If oral health is essential for overall health, why was the dental profession relegated to nonessential status?

The public officials who made these decisions should have to explain how and why they made this call. What data did they use in their decision-making? It all seems arbitrary especially when marijuana dispensaries are open as are liquor stores in most states. I would like to hear an explanation for these decisions.

We may have only ourselves to blame. I did not hear any pushback or public outcry when the nonessential tag was placed on dentistry. There may have been some voices, but they were not loud enough. Professional organizations at every level were largely silent. Even if a change to essential status could not have been made, it would have been nice to hear some organization advocating for us and the services we provide.

Office reopening checklists are fine and necessary, but a greater effort to keep our offices open for the benefit of the patients we serve would have been better. I am willing to bet that if the public were surveyed, a large percentage of people would want their dental offices to be open. Those who were not comfortable coming in could defer their dental visits until the quarantine was lifted. Just something to think about.

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Richard H. Nagelberg, DDS, has practiced general dentistry in suburban Philadelphia for more than 30 years. He is a speaker, advisory board member, consultant, and key opinion leader for several dental companies and organizations. He lectures on a variety of topics centered on understanding the impact dental professionals have beyond the oral cavity. Contact Dr. Nagelberg at [email protected].