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Dental office managers: Look to the future

Dec. 10, 2020
Dental office managers plan for upcoming years, but nothing could have prepared any of them for 2020. Fortunately for Jane Walkley, her office fared well during the crazy year for many reasons, including its practice management software and teamwork.

By Jane Walkley, MAADOM

What a difference a year makes! Like many dental office managers, I look forward to closing out a year and I anticipate the new year ahead. This past year was no different. Oh, wait. Halt the presses! We’re talking about 2020 here. Yes, we all anticipated 2020 with open arms, ready to embrace a new year with all of our usual gusto. Little did we know that 2020 had different plans.

This year arrived with all of the promise of a fresh start, new beginning, and grand plans. We celebrated with glitter and glamor. We filled our schedules and set goals. We booked vacations, team meetings, and conferences. The air was filled with newness and we were ready to dive in.

2020 had different ideas

Then the news started to turn dark and grim. We learned that a virus called COVID-19 was lurking. We could feel a sense of insecurity and a fear of the unknown developing.

I certainly felt this. When my state, like every other state, started shutting down businesses, I was left wondering what would happen to the dental office where I was employed. It was challenging for the doctor to determine what our two practice locations would look like moving forward. By mid-March we were forced into an emergency-only status. But what about our patients? They would need to know our plans as soon as possible. Fortunately, we were already using patient communication software. Being able to reach patients by email and text was a vital component in keeping them updated and aware of our office’s status.

Trying to navigate through all of the information being shared from various agencies was daunting. How many of us could imagine that 2020 would bring such a confusing jumble of acronyms? They were coming at us from every direction at a rapid pace. Every news outlet mentioned CDC, OSHA, PPE, PPP, CARES, PEUC, and many others. We all learned how to Zoom. The alphabet took on a whole new meaning. It was difficult to keep up with all of the new and constantly changing guidelines.

We all spent many days during this time period researching the new guidelines and protocols. I was following the rising case numbers and trying to keep team members calm. It was stressful. I spent many hours putting together a plan when the time came for us to fully reopen. As a member of the American Association of Dental Office Management, I had access to the most current information available from infection control and human resources educators in the industry. The webinars and Facebook events prepared me for reopening. Unfortunately, the missing piece of the puzzle was knowing the timeframe.

Offices could reopen

In mid-May the governor of my state declared that dental offices could reopen for all services. Our team met via an online meeting and reviewed all of the new protocols and procedures. Our doctors decided that we would reopen to all team members on two of our emergency-only days. This would allow for full team training and implementation of our enhanced protocols. It became apparent that the research we did during our downtime was vital to reopening the practice. We would need to reach out to all of our patients to update them. The communication software proved to be an even more valuable resource than ever before. We were prepared!

The following months were filled with moments of frustration, sympathy, and sadness. The frustration of the unknown future, the sympathy when a patient became ill or had a death in the family, and the sadness of our overwhelming concern for the community. Everyone was filled with support, caring, understanding, and kindness. We appreciated the support we received from the local health department, the caring from patients who waited in their cars for their appointments, the understanding that we were doing our very best to accommodate every patient, and the kindness shared and reciprocated from our patients and team.

We had to change the ways we greeted our patients—handshakes and hugs were nowhere to be found. Lunches and breaks looked different. The dental office had definitely changed, not only with new COVID-19 protocols, but with a new awareness of caring for humanity. Perhaps we are thinking more deeply and caring more strongly. In light of all the new protocols, we did not and should not change the way we care for our patients. It might have looked a bit different, but the true sense of community shone through and our patients could see that we cared. Many have expressed this to our team.

I believe I can speak for every office when I say that it’s been an interesting time, this year of 2020. It hasn’t turned out as we planned for it 12 months ago. Perhaps we’ve grown stronger, wiser, become a bit more curious, and developed deeper relationships with our teams and patients.

Is it possible 2020 had its own vision to enhance our lives by forcing us to step back and look around? We look around and see the sky, the flowers, the look in our patients’ eyes. We understand that we are united as people and yearn for our normal to return. As we come to the end of 2020, we should look toward this next year with 20/20 vision. We need a clear vision for the possibility of fresh starts, new beginnings, and grand plans.

Jane Walkley, MAADOM, has been living her dream in dentistry since 1979, when she graduated at the top of her dental assisting class. She worked as an assistant for several years before moving to the front. Walkley was instrumental in facilitating the office’s growth and subsequent move to a larger location in 1994, when she received the title of office manager. She learned about AADOM in 2011 and joined immediately. Attaining Fellowship in 2012 was a highlight of her career until she attained her AADOM Mastership this year. Walkley has supported local offices with software and insurance training and has assisted them in implementing systems and protocols. She serves on the board of directors for a local nonprofit that facilitates a cold-weather shelter.