It's safe to say that few dental companies had a once-in-a-generation pandemic in their 2020 business plans. So when COVID-19 slammed the global marketplace earlier this year, dental companies had to pull themselves together and improvise. For Chicago-based HuFriedyGroup, that meant drawing upon its global resources and deep business heritage to mount a confident response.
I had the chance to interview Patrick Bernardi, senior vice president (SVP) and chief marketing officer (CMO) of HuFriedyGroup, about the company's strategy to navigate the global health crisis. Bernardi is responsible for directing HuFriedyGroup's global brand marketing function, including content marketing, digital customer engagement, distributor demand generation, public relations, customer relationship management, brand strategy, and creative services. Here's what he had to say about the company's initial pandemic response and outlook for 2021.
ZK: In February of this year, your team made a major announcement regarding the formation of the HuFriedyGroup...and then the pandemic struck. Take us back to the first few months of the crisis. From manufacturing decisions to financial forecasting, what were the big challenges you found yourself facing and how did you navigate them?
PB: The first few months of the pandemic, including the industry shutdown that began in March, were certainly a hectic time for us to say the least. After coming off the excitement of the new brand launch at the Chicago Midwinter show, we worked urgently to ensure we could deliver on our promises to help dental professionals be the best in practice, and our focus shifted to providing access to personal protective equipment (PPE), educating on the rapidly changing best practices for infection prevention, and staying connected with our customers through digital meetings and consultations. As a major manufacturer of surgical masks and other PPE, we knew we had to keep our facilities open, and we shifted to 24/7 manufacturing of our masks and face shields at our Long Island location. Of course, employee wellbeing was (and continues to be) our main priority, so we followed the guidelines that were released to allow us to operate safely.
Beyond the logistical adjustments to ensure our essential products were still being produced safely and efficiently, education has always been a core value for us, and we knew that more than ever dental professionals would need support from all angles to make informed decisions for their practices. So, we continued to build off our existing platforms like Friends of Hu-Friedy and the GreenLight Dental Compliance Center to provide up-to-date resources on operating compliantly with CDC guidelines and other regulations.
Below: As part of its COVID-19 focus, HuFriedyGroup released its "Points of Protection: Infection Prevention in the Dental Office" video in July
Like everyone else in the industry, we knew it would be a challenging time, but we didn’t miss a beat when it came to producing the products that were demanded of us and providing resources, support, and advice to our customers.
ZK: Not since 2008 and the Great Recession has dentistry faced such a jolt in the economy. Are there any lessons you learned then that you find yourself applying now?
PB: The benefit of a company with as extensive a heritage as HuFriedyGroup is that we’ve been here before. While the pandemic is a new factor, we have a roadmap to follow. Much like every business and industry, it boils down to monitoring our expenses, investing in innovation, and staying in close contact with our customers. We took a look at our performance pre-2008 and during the Great Recession, and when the market rebounded then, we were in better position than ever before. With the actions we’re taking now, we fully expect the same sort of rebound when this down-cycle ends.
ZK: With its diverse brands, HuFriedyGroup is uniquely positioned to address the pressing infection prevention issues facing dental clinicians today. How are you using your deep knowledge of this area of clinical practice to strengthen your business and make meaningful connections with dental professionals?
PB: We knew that with so much uncertainty at the start of the pandemic, practices would need resources to make informed decisions about infection prevention best practices. We felt we were uniquely suited to providing support given our extensive portfolio of infection prevention products and the “complete circle of protection” approach to the dental suite that we’ve adopted. Our tagline is “The Best in Practice,” and we really believe that infection prevention education and awareness are critical to achieving that.
We immediately shifted into overdrive working with experts and key opinion leaders to produce continuing education webinars that summarized changing guidelines and provided advice for best practices. We also produced a flurry of resource guides, opening/closing checklists, patient communication templates, and PPE usage best practices that ultimately culminated in our Back to Practice landing page, which collected all of that information into one easy-to-follow resource.
Of course, we also continue to offer the same level of service and expertise from our sales reps (albeit from a distance or over Zoom), and they have continued to consult with customers on everything from sterilization observations to waterline maintenance to investing in IMS Cassettes.
Throughout the whole shutdown period and continuing to today, we’ve been very pleased to see how dental professionals are staying highly engaged and motivated when it comes to learning about and implementing infection prevention best practices.
ZK: You're making a major product release related to the needs of clinicians today. Tell us more.
PB: Yes, this is something we’ve been working on for a while, and it is more important than ever. We all know that dental professionals, and hygienists in particular, can suffer from hand, wrist, or arm pain as a result of their work, and ergonomics can play a big role in relieving those issues. But there is no scientific definition of “ergonomic,” and there are a lot of solutions that claim to be ergonomic without the evidence to back it up. So, with that in mind, we set out to create a truly ergonomic scaler with scientifically proven hand relief. The result is the Harmony Ergonomic Scalers and Curettes designed with TrueFit Technology.
TrueFit, an advanced, sensor-based technology, allowed us to measure the pinch force in hygienists’ hands and the pressure applied to the tooth when scaling. With over 2.8 million data points collected, this research enabled us to design, test, and revise a new scaler handle that reduces pinch force up to 65% and reduced pressure on the tooth by 37%. Combined with our EverEdge 2.0 Working Ends, clinicians can use less pressure to do the same amount of work. With less pinch force and less pressure on the tooth, the Harmony scaler reduces clinician fatigue while increasing patient comfort. Now that some hygienists are increasingly choosing hand scaling to avoid aerosol generation, having an instrument that improves the daily work experience is something we’re very pleased to be able to provide.
ZK: As you look ahead to 2021, what challenges and opportunities do you see for the dental industry?
PB: While it’s been comforting to see a gradual return to prepandemic levels of business for dental practices, we’re not through the woods yet, so it’s important to remain vigilant with infection prevention at all levels. And, as we’re already seeing, the pandemic has had a major impact on oral health among the general population. Increased levels of stress and depression have led to additional cases of tooth fracturing and other issues, and patients that continue to delay their routine care may have worsening periodontal outcomes. As things slowly return to normal, that may mean increased caseloads for the foreseeable future.
Additionally, it seems unlikely that conferences and conventions will be returning anytime soon, so we continue to explore ways to stay connected virtually with the industry at large. Looking ahead, we are excited to continue to provide the same engaging, personal experiences of a conference, symposium, or office visit, just in a digital setting.
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Zachary Kulsrud is the editorial director for Endeavor Business Media's dental group, publishers of Dental Economics, DentistryIQ, Perio-Implant Advisory, and RDH magazine.