The future of post-pandemic dentistry
Making strides in safety procedures and digital communication
As the COVID-19 pandemic shut down retail stores, business offices, and schools, dental practices were no exception. Many dental offices throughout the country found themselves closed to their own patients for everything but emergency care. It was, and still is, a challenging time. In 2020, nearly 9 in 10 dentists experienced increased operating costs and reduced revenue due to the pandemic.1
Dental practices are working now to find their footing again. Dental visits in early 2021 actually exceeded the number of pre-pandemic appointments, particularly because patients are swiftly booking up dental appointments to make up for lost time.
COVID has propelled dentistry into a new era of more advanced dental safety
According to Guardian’s 10th Annual Workplace Benefits Study, more than 8 in 10 dentists adopted new safety processes and procedures during the pandemic.2 In addition to utilizing surgical masks, protective eyewear, non-sterile gloves, and social distancing, dentists have been encouraged to prepare for aerosol generating procedures. If they are necessary, many dental offices use four-handed dentistry, high evacuation suction, and dental dams to minimize aerosols.3
While these precautions are relatively standard, they do seem to have proved effective. Dental practices are largely exempted from new COVID-19 workplace regulations. The very low COVID-19 infection rate for dentists and dental hygienists (2.6 percent versus 3.3 percent for other US health professionals) prove that dental practices are safe workplaces, according to the American Dental Association (ADA).4
Digital communications options increase, from teledentistry to online bookings
As patients sought an alternative to in-office care, teledentistry increased dramatically. Teledentistry not only encompasses real-time, two-way interaction between dentist and patient, but also the transmission of x-ray and dental records, and measuring the pH of a patient’s saliva. Despite 26 percent of dentists admitting that teledentistry is not a satisfying way for them to practice, it certainly resulted in an industry shift in patient behavior.5 US adults who have used teledentistry for themselves or their children is on a 20 percent rise from 2020.6 In fact, in a non-emergency situation, the CDC now recommends that dental practices employ triage protocols via a telephone screen prior to any patient visiting the office in person.7
More than 40 percent of adults say they would not consider using teledentistry services following the pandemic.8 But those who would consider using it after the pandemic see its value for specific circumstances, such as when they are physically unable, caring for young children or an elderly parent, or due to their work schedule.
In addition to teledentistry, digital patient communication is proving more popular than ever. Seventy-seven percent of adults have used some form of technology either for themselves or their children to communicate with their dentist.9 This includes activity from the dental office, such as scheduling appointments online, sending appointment card reminders via a mobile app, sharing procedure follow-up, and even offering oral health tips and information. Plus, proactive and regular communications about safety measures bolster patient confidence in returning to the dentist post-pandemic.
Young patients in particular stress a desire to communicate digitally with their dental offices; 85 percent of millennials prefer to communicate with their dentist’s office via a digital method. This is an excellent opportunity to improve patients’ understanding of oral health and its connection to overall well-being.
New tech adoption is at a low
After the lifestyle and safety changes wrought by the pandemic, only about half (52 percent) of dentists say they are likely or very likely to adopt new technologies or innovations in their dental practices right now.10 Many dental offices aren’t prepared to sacrifice both the time and money required – time to learn the technology and money to purchase the rights or the machinery to use it. The key is to remember that technology must enable dentists’ vision and purpose for their patients and not the other way around. The most important aspect of technology adoption is the understanding of the value received versus the price paid for the service.11
More than eight in 10 dentists (82 percent) cited cost as the primary barrier to adopting new technology; specifically, 56 percent said investing in new equipment was too expensive.12
While the major shift of patient service to digital formats like teledentistry may have been a symptom of necessity, it’s not surprising that most tech innovations now are in the vein of moving practices to more advanced digital software. For instance, digital impressions, digital records (including x-rays and charts), smart toothbrushes, and 3D capabilities like printing techniques and cone-beam imaging.
Most dentists (56 percent) believe that technology can help deliver more precise treatment and recognize the potential improvements that technology can bring to patient care.13 But the cost, compounded with the recent, and likely ongoing, financial recovery from the pandemic create reservations. 2021 is not the year for the adoption of new technology or new procedures.
To continue recovery and to thrive in the future, practices must continue utilizing and promoting their enhanced safety procedures and also accommodate changing patient expectations around increased digital communications. Educating patients on overall oral health and keeping them apprised of in-office safety protocols will help to retain their comfort level and loyalty.