HPI: 99% of dental practices were open mid-July

 Dr. Nipa Thakkar
Webinar: Dr. Nipa Thakkar, a private practice owner based in Pennsylvania, appeared in an Aug. 5 webinar where she and ADA leadership discussed dentists getting back to work.
West Chester, Penn. — When Dr. Nipa Thakkar realized that she had to close her private practice due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she agonized about the future and effects it would have on strong personal connections with patients forged in calmer times.

“I was very afraid,” she said. “But I’m finding just as the data shows that patients are becoming quite comfortable coming in.”

The data Dr. Thakkar referred to was highlighted in an Aug. 5 ADA webinar that showed a rebounding of patient volume since many dentists began to reopen their practices, with more and more people willing to go to the dentist as they trust the precautions and protocols followed in offices.

The Association aired the webinar to let dentists know about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on dental practices, including new research on consumer views about returning to the dentist. It also covered what long-term impacts the pandemic might have on dentists going forward.

How COVID-19 is Impacting Dental Practices and Patient Attitudes Toward Visiting the Dentist is available to watch on YouTube.

The panelists discussed the latest data on patient volume, collections and personal protective equipment stockpiles in dental practices; new research on consumer sentiments about visiting the dentist from Engagious, a consumer research firm working with the ADA; and the ADA’s role in supporting dentists and safeguarding the safety of the public during the pandemic.

Some of the takeaways from the data presented during the webinar are:
• Consumer polling indicates that 80% of adults are very comfortable visiting the dentist now and another 8% would be willing to go if they had some reassurance from their dentists, the CDC or other authorities. The remaining 12% indicate they will not visit the dentist until there is a vaccine or proven treatment for COVID-19.
• Patient volume was estimated to be 73% of pre-pandemic levels for the week of July 27.
• As of the week of July 13, 99% of dental practices were open.
• Dental practices are stabilizing at roughly 90% of pre-pandemic staffing levels.
• About one-third of practices are anticipating lower patient volumes in September and October, while about one-fifth of practices are anticipating higher patient volumes. It is unclear at this stage how significant the “fall lull” will be.
• N95/KN95 masks and gowns are the most difficult PPE supplies to obtain, though PPE availability in dental practices remains stable for now.

The webinar panelists were Marko Vujicic, Ph.D., chief economist and vice president, ADA Health Policy Institute; Jon Last, president, Sports & Leisure Research Group; Michael Graham, senior vice president, ADA Division of Government and Public Affairs; Dr. Kirk Norbo, ADA trustee and co-chair of the ADA’s COVID-19 Recovery Task Force; and Dr. Thakkar. The webinar also includes an introduction and closing by Dr. Chad Gehani, ADA president, and was moderated by Dr. Kathy O’Loughlin, ADA executive director.

To better understand the impact of COVID-19 on dental practices, the ADA Health Policy Institute initiated a biweekly poll on economic conditions during the pandemic. The poll, with a nationally representative sample of about 4,000 dentists, aims to quantify the magnitude of the pandemic’s impact on dental practices over time.

Slides on the most recent HPI polling and consumer data are available online at ADA.org/HPI.
“We as a profession are known for our ability to cope and deal with adversity,” said Dr. Norbo during the webinar. “We are up against a real battle but there is no doubt in my mind that we’re going to win.”

“The ADA is proud to provide information that supports all dentists in this new normal,” said Dr. Gehani in the webinar. “We will continue to work hard to lead dentistry through the current crisis.”

Dr. Thakkar actually closed her practice on March 12, even before the ADA recommended that dentists suspend nonemergency procedures, as she started to see many of her patients cancel their appointments. She also was concerned about the health and safety of her dental team, which includes two cancer survivors and two others who are caregivers for elderly family members, as well as a staffer who had an infant at home.

Communication with both her staff and her patients was critical during the closure, Dr. Thakkar said, especially as they went through three false openings. She held weekly Zoom meetings with her furloughed staff, and made sure every single one of her patients had her cellphone number.

She received the go-ahead on May 18 to reopen, but waited until June 1 to open her doors so that she could train her staff on the precautions and protocols they would now be following.

Dr. Thakkar thanked the ADA for providing the Return to Work Interim Guidance Toolkit, which she said led her way through her staff training, line by line. She also appreciated frequent emails from the ADA about their advocacy efforts, she said, with their “small wins and big victories.” As the recipient of a Paycheck Protection Program loan, Dr. Thakkar said she relied on the ADA for guidance on how to navigate the process.

As for the road ahead, Dr. Thakkar said she is optimistic that dentists and patients will connect with a message Dr. Gehani shared during the webinar: “We are all in this together.”

“This isn’t a dental or medical problem,” she said. “This a human problem.”