The experience of going to a dentist might be different now, but they remain safe places to be.
Patients still need to be patient
Many practices are still catching up from when they were closed during the first national lockdown and those delivering NHS care in particular may have a backlog.
For these practices, their priorities are likely to be:
- Patients needing urgent care
- Patients at higher risk of oral disease and
- Patients with outstanding treatment needs.
The reason for the long waits is not just because of the backlog, but also because there’s a lot more disinfection of surgeries required after each treatment. Depending on the nation, sometimes they have to wait anything up to an hour before they can have another patient in the chair.
What's happening in dentistry now?
Dentist Philip McLorinan demonstrates how dentistry is working in a Covid world:
As restrictions are lifting and freedoms are returning, in dental practices, things are still quite different and will remain so for quite some time. We are working under current guidelines and await further updates from government, as other sectors have done.
Dunmurry Dental Practice, Northern Ireland
Our team are working their normal contracted hours and we seem to be busier than normal, which is strange because when we look at the actual items of treatment carried out, our output has been slashed when compared to last year. We typically can only accommodate about 50% of previous attendance.
Enhanced disinfection protocols, the time taken to put on and take off PPE, the time taken to clear the air after a water based dental treatment and social distancing means that, although we are open our usual hours and we are working harder than ever, we can accommodate fewer patients than before.
The waiting list
This means we have to prioritise patients in relation to their dental need. Patients in pain remain our top priority and as all appointments must be carefully pre-planned, our dentists also take time to speak with patients on the telephone to assess their needs before they attend. We also accommodate unregistered patients who can no longer access walk-in clinics in hospitals.
We are working through cancelled or postponed treatments, dealing with emergencies, caring for unregistered patients and providing on-call every weekend and bank-holiday. With stringent operating guidelines limiting our capacity, it can be difficult to accommodate routine check-ups, but if you are in pain or you are worried about your mouth, we are here for you.
We are here if you need us, but please bear with us, the country is opening up and we are keen to increase our capacity but because of our close contact and the fact that most of our treatments generate aerosols, for your safety and the safety of our teams, dental restrictions will remain in place for some time to come.
How we've changed
As a practice we have invested considerable finances to increase patient capacity to help deliver the service we did pre-Covid. We have cored out 9-inch holes in our walls and installed upgraded ventilation systems to increase the number of room air exchanges to increase the frequency of our appointment times within the current restrictions.
We have had to increase the percentage of time we spend daily to deal with emergency and urgent calls from our registered and unregistered patients who are experiencing increased difficulty sourcing emergency dental care at present. Our team is now available seven days a week to provide an emergency dental service for patients, the previous local out-of-hours emergency dental service was suspended in March 2019 because of COVID-19 and does not look like it will be reinstated for some time.
As we struggle with providing care to patients we do so with financial insecurity, the private income stream to our practice has received no grants from local government to offset the lost income. The Department of Health NI has provided much needed support to prop up the NHS component of dental practice, this has been an extremely welcomed lifeline to dental practices. We would however ask that DoH commits to providing ongoing support at least until end of this financial year and starts to develop plans or a new dental contract to rebuild dental services into 2022.
Finally, it must be acknowledged that, like ourselves, most dental practices and teams are doing an amazing job in an exceedingly difficult situation, we are aware of so many examples of teams going the extra mile at present, it's easy to forget the extent of the problems we are dealing with, when the teams are doing so very well and delivering dental care.
NHS and private care
Some patients might find that a treatment is available quicker privately than it is on the NHS. As with medical care, this is often because the queue for NHS treatment is longer. It may simply be that there are many more people looking for NHS appointments than private appointments. Many practices will provide a mix of NHS and private care. But those practices will have a limit to the amount of NHS care they are able to provide. The BDA believes that the current NHS contracts do not work well for patients or for dentists and we are discussing with the relevant authorities ways of improving them.
Calling the practice
Please make sure you keep your appointment if you have one; it’s going to be safe and it’s important we don’t waste limited resources. If you can’t make an appointment, your practice may be able to offer it to someone else who really needs it.
If you’re looking for care, you may receive initial remote advice via the phone or video call. This may lead to advice being given or the arrangement of an appointment if the dentist deems it necessary. Some routine care like a check-up might be delayed, potentially until next year unfortunately.
Please be assured that dentists are working within the current guidelines issued by governments and are doing their best to help patients wherever possible.
Receptionists are also doing their best to ensure that priority cases are treated as soon as possible. Please treat all the staff with respect. We know it can be stressful, but they are doing their best to help.
Please check in with your own practice or if you haven’t regularly sought care:
- Phone NHS 111 if you live in England, Northern Ireland or Wales
- Phone NHS 24 if you live in Scotland
What are dental appointments like?
Practices are using personal protective equipment such as mask, gloves and aprons and social distancing measures to keep staff and patients safe.
- If you call to make an appointment, you will be asked some screening questions. You’ll be asked those same questions again at your appointment to see if anything has changed since you booked
- You will probably be asked to use hand sanitiser or to wash your hands when you arrive (and again before you leave)
- You might also be asked to wear a mask in the waiting rooms if you can
- You will also find that waiting rooms might look a little different with two metre markers in place
- You will also notice that the dental team may be wearing different protective equipment to what you are used to seeing – this will be to increase your protection
- Appointments will be managed to allow for social distancing between patients. That might mean that you’re offered fewer options for scheduling your appointment.
How you can help:
- Please do not arrive without an appointment
- With the exception of children and persons in need, patients should come alone
- Patients should attend wearing a mask if possible or be prepared to wear one. A distance of at least two metres mush be observed if another patient is present in the dental practice
- Please do not arrive early to the practice. If necessary, you should wait outside the practice
- Staff will not shake your hand
- If you show symptoms following appointment booking, you should contact NHS Test and Trace
- If asked to send in photographs of your children’s teeth, first watch this helpful
video on how to photograph children's teeth
It is likely to be some time before dental services can return to what you previously experienced as normal.
However, your dental teams will be doing all they can to ensure you receive the treatment you require in the safest way.