Q: I was shocked to observe the outright hysteria exhibited in my community relative to the coronavirus outbreak. When it was called a pandemic, lines at grocery stores were long, some requiring two hours to check out. Shelves in the stores soon became empty. People were behaving as though the world were ending. This is not the first pandemic most adults have experienced. There have been at least six of the worst ones since 1900, with HIV/AIDS claiming 36 million lives. As the coronavirus emerged and many preventive techniques were suggested, dentists stopped treating patients; staff were left unemployed; dentists, staff, and patients were anxious, unproductive, and running out of funds. You have had long experience in the profession. What can dentists do to be prepared for the next pandemic or other disaster?
A: All of us have family emergencies from time to time. They may be financial, health, marital difficulties, natural disasters, and many others. These situations can be as threatening or even more threatening than the COVID-19 situation. The following statements and suggestions relate to any family emergency, most of which come without warning. These suggestions can assist any family—especially your dental family—in enduring an emergency without significant challenges in doing so.
Do not panic!
If you show signs of panic, your staff and family will do so as well. As you mentioned, the panic shown at the time of coronavirus introduction was unbelievable. Keep the emergency in proportion to others you might have endured. You will be amazed at how that perspective then diminishes your current “emergency.” If you have accomplished the suggestions I explain in this article, there is absolutely no reason to have major concern.
Maintain reserve funds in your practice account
There is a tendency for financially successful dentists to take more funds from their practice than is prudent, leaving only a minimal amount of reserve funds in the practice. Most families know how much money is required to support them for a month and how much is necessary to pay the practice expenses. I suggest that at least two months of reserve funds should be left in the practice account to pay the family and practice expenses in case of emergency. These funds will allow time to make necessary plans toward financial recovery.
Have insurance for times when you are unable to practice
It’s a natural tendency to think that emergencies fall on others and not on ourselves. Many emergencies can be overcome rapidly, while others may take six months to a year to overcome. As an example, a dear friend shared his lymphoma journey with me and explained how he was able to keep from worrying about his practice while he focused on getting well. You need insurance for such emergency situations.
During my career, I have met numerous practitioners whose health challenges required them to discontinue practice and enter another vocation. If health challenges exceed the practice reserve and there is no long-term insurance for such emergencies, practitioners often must declare bankruptcy. Check out the many options for practice disability insurance and get it!
Eliminate credit card debt each month
I have seen dentist friends stack up so much credit card debt that in times of emergency it is impossible to pay the interest, and they certainly cannot pay back the principal in those desperate times. If you don’t have the money to pay off the balance, don’t use the credit card as a loan. When the credit card bills come each month, pay them. Seek out credit cards that pay small benefits related to the amount you use the card.
Save reserve cash funds at home
In addition to the financial reserves and insurance, save some cash at home. This is often useful on a routine basis when you run out of cash and cannot use a credit card, and it is highly useful in times of emergency. As an example, what if the electricity is off and credit cards cannot be used? I suggest setting aside a few hundred dollars as a backup fund.
Develop an office line of credit for emergencies
When an emergency occurs that lasts for a significant period of time, you may need additional cash. If your credit rating is high enough, and if you are well known to your bank as a responsible professional, finding cash in an emergency is not difficult. You can fill out a line of credit application at your bank and, upon qualification, cash will be available in a few days. Most banks are happy to work with you in your time of financial need.
Have a store of food at home to last at least a few weeks
The COVID-19 challenge caused grocery stores to run completely out of all types of routinely needed items: disinfecting supplies, paper towels, toilet paper, fresh vegetables, meat, bread, and many other foods. How did you feel when you couldn’t get the foods you wanted or needed? Only after several days did the stores begin to resupply.
In some emergencies that affect your entire community—such as the California wildfires, the floods in Texas, and Hurricane Katrina—more time is required to obtain food and supplies.
I suggest storing at least two weeks of nonperishable foods in your home. This will last through most temporary emergencies. Which foods should you keep on hand? Water, dehydrated foods, nuts, peanut butter, cereal, whole wheat crackers, energy bars, dried fruit, dry milk, juices, trail mix, and canned foods, such as turkey, chicken, tuna, salmon, beans, peas, and carrots. Some churches and civic groups offer courses in emergency preparedness tactics. I suggest that you and your family attend such courses.
Keep yourself healthy
If you accomplish the above suggestions, you will have money and food. What else do you need? A healthy body and mind. Do you have a healthy lifestyle that will take you through the crisis? Survival during an emergency is easier if you are healthy. This subject would take an entire article or book alone to cover in-depth.
Let’s focus on the many suggestions you have read everywhere regarding COVID-19. Without going into great detail, observe these practices: don’t touch other people, stay six feet away from others, stay home, wash your hands, use barriers when touching questionable objects, and so on. We should have been doing all of these things long before the virus stimulated them! I invite you to visit cliniciansreport.org for Clinicians Report Foundation’s free special report with further details on COVID-19.
Some spare clothing is highly desirable if the emergency is expected to last for a significant time. Fortunately, most adults keep more clothing than they need. Keep some spare, routinely used clothing items for such times.
Have a store of face masks and gloves
All health practitioners have had challenges finding an adequate supply of masks and gloves during the COVID-19 crisis. It is well known that dental professionals work in one of the most polluted office-air environments of all vocations, primarily because of air rotors and the aerosols they produce, in addition to other debris in the air. Masks are mandatory for you and your team’s health and the protection of your patients. Keep at least a month’s supply in stock for you and your staff. I also recommend watching global news trends that can help you predict potential supply chain problems.
Have a store of commonly used dental materials and disinfectants in your office
You and your staff know well the dental materials and disinfectants you use regularly. Purchase additional items to allow you to accomplish patient care during an emergency. This simple suggestion would have saved many dentists during the COVID-19 emergency, at least until elective medical services were locked down.
Emergencies and pandemics occur without warning. Many were unprepared for the COVID-19 pandemic. Consider incorporating the numerous ways provided in this article to better prepare your practice and your family for the next emergency. Being prepared will offer you greater peace and calm than most dentists have felt during the recent coronavirus challenge.
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Gordon J. Christensen, DDS, PhD, MSD, is a practicing prosthodontist in Provo, Utah. He is the founder and CEO of Practical Clinical Courses, an international continuing education organization founded in 1981 for dental professionals. Dr. Christensen is cofounder (with his wife, Rella Christensen, PhD, RDH) and CEO of Clinicians Report.