Health and Science

Dentists reduce hours, postpone elective procedures to combat coronavirus

Key Points
  • The American Dental Association advised dentists Monday to offer only emergency care to their patients amid the coronavirus pandemic.
  • In response to the outbreak, dentist offices across the country are changing their practices to align with ADA guidelines. Others are reducing hours or even shutting down completely.
  • The closures and reduced hours affect not only dentists but hourly employees at these practices.
A national mask shortage has effect on dental offices as worries about the spread of coronavirus looms.
Derek Davis | Portland Press Herald | Getty Images

Dr. Allen Ghorashi reduced his dental practice's hours this week because of the coronavirus, but he hoped he could still help patients who needed fillings, dental implants or other routine procedures.

He changed his mind after seeing the most recent guidelines from the American Dental Association urging dentists in the U.S. to postpone elective procedures and offer only emergency care. Ghorashi's practice, Valley Dental Group in Ramsey, New Jersey, will see only emergency patients for the next two weeks.

"We're going to screen them over the phone, do a phone interview to see what the nature of the emergency is," he said. "Based on that, I will recommend what to do at home or if need be, they can come to the office."

The guidelines, which are in place for the next three weeks, "will allow us to care for our emergency patients and alleviate the burden that dental emergencies would place on hospital emergency departments," the ADA said in a statement to CNBC.

The White House echoed the recommendations at a press briefing Wednesday when Seema Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, advised people to "seriously consider" delaying elective medical and dental procedures.

In response to the outbreak, dentist offices across the country are changing their practices to align with these guidelines. Others are shutting down completely.

"For the safety of our patients and that of our team members, we thought it best to not see patients," said Tina Ebrahimian, the office manager of Ebrahimian Integrative Dentistry, where her husband and daughter are dentists.

The dental office, in Scotts Valley, California, closed this week and will remain so during a planned spring break next week. The practice is taking care of its employees' salaries during the unexpected closure.

"We felt that was important to do to support our team members," Ebrahimian said. "Everybody just felt a little sigh of relief that we were going to have a little buffer."

Ghorashi said he knows of practices that are closing for multiple weeks but that he would only do so under a state mandate and is currently sticking to being open only a few hours a day.

"I close for four weeks, I'm looking for another job," he said.

He said his office has strict hygiene practices to help prevent transmission of the virus. He's also staggering emergency patients' appointments so that they will have limited contact with each other. His usually full waiting room will now only have two or three patients sitting six feet apart.

For teledentistry company SmileDirectClub, which ships teeth aligners to customers and provides orthodontic consultations remotely, now is the perfect time for health care that doesn't involve going into an office.

"Given the guidelines in place for social distancing, the need for telehealth platforms is more important than ever," the company said in a statement to CNBC. "Our platform has effectively allowed the dentists and orthodontists in our network to continue to monitor and manage treatment plans for their patients during this public health crisis."

Dental office closures and reduced hours also have the potential to financially impact hourly employees at these practices. While there has been concern over the effect of the coronavirus on hourly workers in the food and service industries, licensed medical workers such as dental hygienists could be at risk as well. 

The American Dental Hygienists Association has seen a number of inquiries from dental hygienists concerned about the impact of the coronavirus on their employment and compensation, according to ADHA President Matt Crespin.

"We are closely monitoring state and national policies as they evolve, and actively working to help dental hygienists understand their rights and options as it relates to personal protection and employment," Crespin told CNBC.

Ghorashi of Valley Dental Group said that while his staff has been understanding about the situation, he's concerned about them because they work on hourly rates. He said he wants to offer them some sort of compensation but that they may have to rely on the practice's unemployment insurance or help from the state.

"I know the state is going to offer some unemployment benefits, but in that case, I have to lay the staff off in order for them to get unemployment," he said.

In addition to being worried about his staff, Ghorashi is also anxious about the long-term financial impact of the coronavirus on his business.

"I'm worried about them and you know, my overhead," he said. "After this, I'll have to work 24/7."