COVID-19: The unintentional accelerator for dental industry transformation
The dental industry is still reeling in the midst of the pandemic and in the throes of a national struggle for our lives and our democracy. Leaders and CEOs have found themselves at a historic crossroads, managing short-term pressures against medium- and long-term uncertainties. Our dental frontline workers have faced the unprecedented stress of caring for patients in risky and sometimes untenable working conditions, as COVID-19 continues to reveal inadequacies, inconsistencies, and inequities in our systems.
And yet, in the midst of such tragedy and uncertainty, there is the possibility to rebuild better. The immediate response to the public health crisis is causing seismic shifts in how and where care is provided to our communities. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced dental professionals to establish new norms and operational best practices to benefit frontline workers and their patients, ushering in a new era of innovation, collaboration, and curiosity.
In an industry that can sometimes be slow to explore new methodologies or potential best practices that aren’t by the book—a natural inclination, considering the nature of our life-saving work—the pandemic has accelerated emerging practices, persuaded dental service organizations (DSOs) to adopt new technologies, and shifted the care delivery model light-years forward.
Despite our cautious optimism, we see a series of challenges ahead—challenges we must be prepared to face head-on. The average dentist operates in a solo practice, and 40% of dentists are over age 55.3 If shutdowns persist, many older dentists may retire rather than resume practice after suffering a prolonged and costly gap in operations. Dentists in rural areas in particular tend to be older, which means practice closures could compound existing geographic disparities in access to dental care. The vast uncertainty that still shrouds the novel coronavirus and its spread is perhaps the most troubling challenge ahead, especially as frontline workers grapple with a deadly second wave.
Dr. Ryan Lee, dental oncologist and implantologist for the U.S. Army National Guard and co-medical director of BioShield Healthcare, warns that we must remain vigilant and mitigate the damage that comes from growing emotional numbness to the pandemic.4 He says, “I’m afraid that, because it’s been relatively quieter in the last couple of months, in contrast to the early days of March and April, that...we’re sort of resting on our laurels. History tells us that [things] are pretty ugly after the initial wave, but the secondary waves are deadly. None of us really knows exactly what’s going to happen; we hope for the best, and control what we can control.”
The traumatic and collective experience of 2020 has demonstrated the potential for fundamental and revolutionary shifts in the dental delivery model—from the training of dental workers, to the sourcing and inventory management of critical care equipment and PPE, to the optimal settings for care delivery and how it is reimbursed. The future success of dental professionals will be determined by our industry’s ability to remain hypervigilant, adjust to the new normal, deal with a specific set of new or accentuated challenges, and capture new opportunities at optimal speed.