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The thin silver lining of COVID-19

Aug. 24, 2020
These are strange times. But for those practice owners who are weathering the storm and mounting a comeback, opportunity awaits. In this opinion piece, industry insider Matthew Newman shares his perspective.

As we approach the end of summer, there is a rush to get back to normalcy by enough people to make it so. (At least, as far as dental is concerned.) I see this every day as I work with practices to regroup and rebuild from what has been a long and unpredictable year. But as we brace for the unknowns in the fall, I'm going to make the argument that this isn't the time to coast. This is the time to ramp up your efforts and get moving. There's a road of opportunity opening up before your very eyes—and quite literally the eyes of your patients. That's because now more than ever, your practice's future is linked to the technology and infection prevention your patients can see.

Let's start with something we all now know: our industry has arguably the most frequent exposure to dangerous human aerosols. This should give everyone a heightened sense of responsibility; and an opportunity to be leaders of what we might call a "sterilization change movement." That movement is being supported by many of us already, but there's also an awareness for its need among patients. Here's a bit of anecdotal proof: I conducted an informal social media poll recently, and more than 80% of regular, non-dental people wanted to see the new COVID-19 safety measures put in place at their own dentists' offices.

We believe that aerosol removers and reception barriers may simply be the beginning of what’s necessary. Who do you listen to in order to feel like you’re doing enough? There are a lot of competing voices out there. Did you ever think about what this uncertainty means for the future of dentistry? My colleagues and I have, and there’s a lot to talk about. It’s a chaotic period right now. We're nearly six months into the pandemic, and no small number of dental employees are still weighing the decision to return to work. Everyone is still figuring out how much more cleaning they need to do in between procedures. And legitimate personal protective equipment (PPE) still seems harder to come by than a reliable 10-year-old autoclave.

These are strange times. Hygienists who once had trouble finding work are now in high demand—with many leaving former positions for the nearest opportunities near their homes. Others still have unemployment benefits and have been fine with staying at home and waiting things out. These new realities have forced many practices to face unpleasant alternatives. Practices without a rainy-day fund have already been delivered knockout blows. As friends and colleagues of those affected, that hurts us all.

However, for those of you who are weathering the storm and mounting a comeback, opportunity awaits. If you're making it through, you’ve got a great chance of dominating your local market. That said, you need to focus on the hard work that needs doing. This may sound like tough love in the current environment, but now's not the time to just come back to work and gingerly watch your expenses. It’s time to put your foot on the gas. And speaking of gas, have you noticed how gas prices are lowest when no one is traveling? Yet the ones are still driving get the most benefit. In the same way, dental distributors are offering incredible financing programs for those who are willing to take the leap of faith. Distributors know that this is a Wild West environment right now. The practices that haven't packed it in have the chance to rebrand themselves and give their offices a whole new look. And yes, looks do matter today. The "wow factor" has become more important for dentistry than at any other time in memory. Patients want to see they are safe and that their dentists are taking control of a volatile situation.

I've observed that many offices are slow getting back to business for one reason or another. This is providing an opportunity for innovative offices. These offices are taking on new procedures, investing in their practices, proudly displaying their new technology, and showcasing their enhanced hygiene protocol for the most apprehensive and discerning patients there have ever been. Never underestimate the power of infusing new, clean-looking, feature-rich cabinetry into your operatories, or rebranding yourself to your patients with the latest CAD/CAM, 3-D imaging, and laser technology.

Think about it in these terms: Have you ever been to a colleague’s office that made you gush to the point that you wish you worked there yourself? That's the power of recreating yourself. Frankly, if you’re still using a paper appointment books, showing patients film x-rays on the wall or holding onto outdated equipment, you might not be projecting the image (pun intended) you need to in order to (re)capture patients' trust.

The future of the waiting room alone has endless possibilities: touchless personal temperature scanners, sequestered or curtained operatories and outdoor waiting rooms are popping up everywhere now. The use of your space requires a new perspective. I could go on about a million new points to ponder (in a “lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” cadence, no less).

It seems that at least the majority of low-risk people (if not a fair share of Americans in general) are afraid to venture out again if it means being in close quarters with others. Judging by your post-quarantine appointment schedule, you might agree they aren’t in a rush to come back. Or, could it be possible they’re just not in a rush to come back to you?

According to the American Dental Association, roughly half of all offices are still reporting lower patient volume on a daily basis. Some of that could be attributed to the cleaning that needs to take place in between patients, but some also to reduced staffing and hours. Regardless of the reasons, there are fewer chances to make a good impression.

In reaching out to members of the dental workforce about what’s needed for that return to normalcy, recapturing trust came up more than a few times. If you were a successful practice to begin with, your operatories probably couldn’t be much cleaner compared to the outside world. However, looking cleaner might be a different story. Look around your office; does your space convey that you’re doing all you can to keep your patients safe and impressed? There are medical offices right now using full-body biometric scanners that triage a patient head to toe (free of human contact, mind you) before they even leave the waiting room. There are even remote robots available that enter an operatory and disinfect the entire room in minutes. The point is that technology can (and does) speak volumes.

Controversial topics will no doubt persist, from charging for PPE to the continued use of Cavitrons, but I’d like to wrap up by directing some attention to a silver lining amidst the uncertainty: things will get better as time goes on. So, what now? Take the dare. Gain an advantage on the competition by taking sellers up on their equipment financing promotions. The practices that wait will be kicking themselves later—if they ever decide to get back in the race.

The bottom line is you have the chance of a lifetime to completely rebrand yourself and your practice. The "old you" might have been leery of investing in dental technology or spending money in general. Or maybe you were known for the retro Pac-Man video game and good ol' lobby fish tank to "wow" your patients. (That aquarium isn't really doing much, by the way). Change your game—now. Pick a metaphor: You’re the comeback boxer who has his opponent on the ropes, the NASCAR driver who's been sitting back in low gear waiting to take the lead or Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Redemption making it through years of misery and a tunnel of sludge to the beaches of Mexico. Or perhaps you simply want to take over the lead for brilliant dentistry in your market.

Listen to me (whispering in your ear): "The time is now. Do it. Do it..."

Matthew Newman is the Operations Manager for the Baltimore/DC/Northern Virginia region of Patterson Dental. A 20-plus year veteran of operational management, he has spent most of his career in the fields of distribution center management and hospitality. He writes articles on operational management, office synergy, and a variety of other topics. He may be contacted by direct message on LinkedIn.

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About the Author

Matthew Newman

Matthew Newman is the VP of sales operations, marketing and public relations for CAD-Ray North America. a distributor of practical CAD/CAM solutions, and home of the Medit intraoral scanner. A 20-plus year veteran of operational management, he has spent his career in the fields of dental B2B, operations management, and hospitality. Newman writes articles about operational management, office synergy, startups, and a variety of other topics. He can be reached through direct message on LinkedIn.

Updated December 15, 2024