How COVID-19 has reshaped patient experience, per North Carolina dentist

A North Carolina dentist discussed how COVID-19 is reshaping the dental patient experience, from care trends to scheduling difficulties to patient well-being.

Katie Heald, DDS, an Aspen Dental dentist owner in Morganton, N.C. discussed the effect the pandemic has had on the dental experience with Becker's Dental + DSO Review.

A new patient experience

Though Dr. Heald's practice reopened a few weeks ago, the patient experience is still much different than before. The office is trying to go paperless, and patients are asked to complete all forms online. Family members can't accompany patients to appointments, which is explained beforehand. This explanation is incorporated into confirmation phone calls, which typically occur a few days before the scheduled appointment. The patient's temperature is checked before an appointment, and their travel history is reviewed as well. Patients are also required to wear masks when they are not receiving treatment.

While some patients are eager to return, older patients have voiced more concern about leaving home to visit the dentist, Dr. Heald said. Her practice has tailored its schedule to see more vulnerable or hesitant patients first, often in the morning before the handpiece starts running. The office has also limited patient volume to allow more time for multiple cleaning rounds.

Preparing for a COVID-19 resurgence

A second wave is always possible, but Aspen Dental has helped Dr. Heald procure the necessary personal protective equipment amid the first surge. Dr. Heald said she was certain Aspen Dental would figure out how to sufficiently supply offices if another wave was to occur. Though closures would differ by state, "it would be very unfortunate if we shut down," Dr. Heald said. After the closure, her office has treated more severe patients than it normally does because patients didn't have full access to care, the dentist said, though she added that the use of teledentistry to perform emergency screening was helpful. If a second COVID-19 wave occurs and the office remains open, Dr. Heald said they will probably cut back on services.

Challenges reopening
While there were many challenges, Dr. Heald said scheduling appointments could be very difficult. It was hard to prioritize patients who had all been waiting for care. Dr. Heald emphasized the importance of transparent communication with patients, adding that patient health and safety is Aspen's key philosophy. The organization's Smile Wide, Smile Safe Promise initiative is meant to reassure patients that the dentist is a safe space and inform patients what is being done daily to minimize risk of transmission.

"We're all trying to do the best we can to keep patients safe," Dr. Heald said. "Dentistry has and will be a safe space. Hopefully we can remain open and continue to deliver."

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