Virus challenges dentists’ delivery of care The Chandler Arizonan

Virus challenges dentists’ delivery of care

Virus challenges dentists’ delivery of care

By Kevin Reagan
Arizonan Staff Writer

The COVID-19 pandemic is placing Chandler’s dentists in the tricky predicament of keeping their practices open while not being allowed to provide care for several types of patients.

Dr. Tyler Clayton, who works at Crossroads Dental Group on Germann Road, said he’s seen his patient numbers drop by about half since Gov. Doug Ducey ordered all dentists to only perform emergency procedures until the pandemic subsides.

In an effort to preserve the state’s supply of masks and gloves, dentists like Clayton have been told to perform only urgent treatments for patients experiencing pain or discomfort.

There are now hundreds of patients who may be waiting indefinitely to get routine dental care, Clayton said, which may lead to problems the longer their treatment is postponed.

“We know that there’s many, many patients that will experience further dental problems because of this,” Clayton said.

Dentists across the state find themselves in this unprecedented situation of only taking on a handful of patients each day while still trying to maintain their regular business operations.

Even though dentists are seeing much fewer patients, Clayton said his staff must still be frugal with their inventory of masks and gloves. As hospitals scramble to meet a new demand for protective gear, the supply for other health providers has suddenly constricted.

“There are days where we have to be extremely careful and cautious with what we have,” Clayton said.

Some practices may have chosen to close during the pandemic, but Clayton said he feels a moral obligation to continue providing as many emergency treatments as possible.

Dentists can help prevent some patients from walking into emergency rooms and straining the resources of local hospitals, Clayton added, and that helps doctors and nurses focus on delivering care to COVID-19 patients.

Clayton recalled a young man who recently came to his office in immense pain and a swollen mouth.

“He was shaking, he was in so much pain,” the dentist said.

His parents didn’t want to take the boy to a hospital, fearing he might catch the coronavirus there. So, they looked to Clayton to provide care at his own office.

Clayton was able to manage the boy’s infection with an emergency root canal, sparing a hospital visit.

That case exemplified how dentists are helping to conserve medical resources, Clayton said, and why anyone in pain shouldn’t put off dental care during this pandemic.

But deciding which patients should be prioritized during this time can be challenging for dentists, since none of them want to risk a patient’s health by delaying care.

“That’s the difficult position we’re in,” said Dr. Jennifer Enos, president of the Arizona Dental Association.

Enos has a dental practice in Chandler and said her staff has been pushing back all non-urgent appointments to early May.

No one knows for sure when this pandemic will end, Enos said, making it hard for dentists to know when they can start seeing regular patients again.

Dentists in Arizona want to keep working, Enos added, but they feel limited in what they can do for the community.

“It is incredibly difficult to know that there’s this crisis going on and there’s very little that we can contribute to it at this point,” Enos said.

The Dental Association advises hundreds of dentists across Arizona on best practices to keep their offices thriving and patients healthy.

When Enos began her one-year term as president in January, she wasn’t quite expecting to deal with a global health crisis that would completely disrupt the industry.

There’s several third-parties being impacted by how COVID-19 is affecting dentists, she said. When dentists can’t see as many patients, it means less business for all the labs and vendors who produce dental supplies.

Right now, most of the association’s members are asking Enos how they’re going to weather this pandemic financially without laying off staff.

“That’s still an ongoing question because the system is changing quite a bit,” Enos said. “The answer a week ago is different than it is today.”

Dentists are hoping stimulus packages recently passed by Congress will soon provide some relief to hygienists and receptionists who have had hours cut.    

If the crisis drags on for several more weeks, the Dental Association is preparing to come up with a contingency plan that would better organize how dental patients are referred and treated.

Not all dental offices in Arizona are equipped to treat a COVID-19 patient, Enos said, so there needs to be communication between all health providers to identify which oral surgeons can handle this specific demographic.

Other states have established networks to better streamline care, but Enos said mimicking that in the Valley could be a challenge.

“It is difficult in such a large metropolitan area to get everybody on the same page,” Enos said.

Clayton is preparing for the ongoing pandemic to potentially hurt his practice in the coming weeks. But he’s trying to remain optimistic during this period of uncertainty and focus on the patients he’s still able to treat.

“I’d rather do at least what I can to provide care to the community and hopefully make a small change,” Clayton said. 

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