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How One Dental Group Is Keeping Patients Out of the ER During the Pandemic

Dr. Joel Collins and his practice outside of Atlanta pivoted to "emergency" and "essential" dentistry.

Dr. Joel Collins and colleagues at Conyers Smiles Dentistry.

Like most doctors this past March, Dr. Joel Collins knew he’d have to take things one day at a time. What he didn’t realize was just how vital his practice, Conyers Smiles Dentistry and Orthodontics, would be to the community. 

While dental practices across the country closed as the pandemic hit, leaving patients stranded and without access to health care, Collins’ practice just outside of Atlanta remained open. Along with other dental offices in the Pacific Dental Services nationwide network, Collins ensured that core to their mission was the promise to serve patients who needed medical attention, keeping ERs free from those with nontraumatic dental emergencies. 

What changes did your practice make when COVID-19 cases first hit Atlanta?

When COVID-19 showed up, we immediately evaluated exactly what we could do to be available and prepared to serve patients. So we looked to governing authorities — like the Georgia Board of Dentistry, CDC and our governor — and stripped down our practice to emergency and essential dentistry. It was a 180-degree turn for us. There are typically more than 20 team members at our practice at a time, but I sent most of them home so my team and patients wouldn’t be endangered. We operated with a six-person team: two doctors, two assistants and two people taking emergency calls. We stayed open five days a week with a modified schedule and stayed up to date as things unfolded, making modifications every day.

Why were you so determined to stay open during the pandemic?

Our goal was to keep people out of emergency rooms. Other offices weren’t available if their patient’s toothache needed to be addressed, but we were. We saw a flood of emergency patients because all of the offices surrounding us were closed. They didn’t have PPE (personal protective equipment) or they just weren’t comfortable being open — I don’t really know what it was, but we were able to continue to stay in the space to be available for our patients, as well as whomever else needed help. We joined PDS’s public service announcement campaign to keep patients out of the ER using the hashtag #dentalER so resources would go to those most in need. Overall, the PDS practices treated nearly 50,000 new patients who didn’t have any other place to go.

What advice do you have for facilities struggling to stay open during COVID?

First of all, protect yourself and your teams. If there’s no structured protocol in place, you’re putting everyone at risk. You have to cherish every opportunity you can for every patient that comes through the door; you can’t dismiss anyone or not give them your best. You have to make sure they’re comfortable, safe and treated appropriately. It’s difficult right now. It’s difficult for everyone. This is still a normal that’s being solidified. It’s new and different and uncomfortable, but we have to remember that we signed up for this: to be a help and service patients. That’s why we’re here.

Read more stories about Preventists changing their communities and learn more about the future of oral health at Preventistry.org.