Working Hygienists Share How They and Their Patients and Practices Have Adapted to the COVID-19 Pandemic
Who could have predicted that 2020 would turn out like this? At the beginning of the year, none of us expected that the global spread of a dangerous disease would upend how we live, how we relate to each other, and how we work.
But now, several months since businesses began cautiously to reopen, a “new normal” is settling over every aspect of American life. For some, that means making temporary work-from-home setups permanent. For others, it means hosting parties over Zoom and developing at-home workout routines.
For dental hygienists, the new normal means continuing non-urgent dental care while taking extra steps to comply with infection prevention guidelines and most importantly, protecting the health and safety of their patients, colleagues, and communities.
As 2020 is quickly coming to a close, we wanted to check in with hygienists throughout the country to learn how they’re handling the new everyday reality. We polled the Friends of Hu-Friedy community and here’s what we found:
How has your office adjusted safety protocols, or what new equipment has your office installed for infection prevention?
Some of the hygienists we heard from noted their offices were on top of infection prevention best practices even before the pandemic. (Note that for privacy, some respondents chose to remain anonymous.)
One hygienist said that prior to the pandemic, her practice was occasionally accused of “overkill” when it came to infection prevention. But even they had to make some upgrades to reopen safely.
“We have added medical-grade air filtration units to each room,” she said. Her practice has also added a stock of ASTM level-3 masks and N95 respirators, as well as lab coat coverings, face shields, and hair coverings.
Kathleen B., RDH told us her practice has been having each patient pre-rinse with hydrogen peroxide and uses high-volume evacuation (HVE) to control aerosols.
“I have used HVE for the past three years, and I love it,” she said.
Hygienists also explained how their practices have altered their operatories.
“Our office has installed air purifiers in every operatory,” she said. “We alternate rooms for patients every hour.”
Another hygienist said her practice installed ultraviolet lights along with air purifiers in every operatory and common area. Plus, she said, “We have installed plastic barriers on the counters at the front desk. We are keeping the doors locked, and patients must call in to get in.”
AS, RDH described how her practice made changes to its waiting areas to encourage social distancing. “We have removed all kinds of resource materials or displays in the waiting rooms. We have also removed some chairs. No more treasure box, magazines, handouts, or models.”
How are you handling guidelines to reduce the use of aerosol-generating instruments?
One of the most significant changes for hygienists during the pandemic has been a reduced reliance on power instruments, such as ultrasonic scalers (which can create aerosols that potentially carry the coronavirus), and an increased focus on hand instrumentation.
One hygienist said her practice has refrained from using ultrasonic instruments entirely, although they do use polishers.
Other hygienists told us they continue to use power instruments but are careful to take the necessary precautions to limit aerosols. This includes the use of HVE, the proper personal protective equipment (PPE), and adding extra time to procedures.
How have all these adjustments to working in the “new normal” impacted your own health – whether physically, mentally, or emotionally?
A new routine can take its toll, especially after being out of practice for so long. Some hygienists told us they do feel more tired at the end of the day, but since they were off for 13 weeks, it may just be that they’ve lost their stamina.
Kathleen B., RDH told us she takes fewer breaks than she used to because she has less time now for non-clinical patient tasks. She also said she has been unable to drink as much water between appointments because she cannot remove her PPE or keep outside water in operatories.
Another pointed out that the additional PPE has exacerbated her eczema on her hands and face.
“I get extremely hot, which only makes my face hurt more,” she said.
How are you alleviating patient stress about returning to the dental office?
Like most hygienists, the hygienists we heard from believe in going above and beyond to help their patients feel safe and comfortable. They all told us they make sure their patients understand the protocols and procedures that have been put in place to protect their health.
“Most of [our patients] have been wanting to come back,” AS, RDH said. “But they also have the option to cancel now if they need to.”
“Our office has been around for over 45 years, so we have amazing patients that know how important sterilization and sanitation has been to us,” she explained. “They tell us they know we are doing everything possible to keep them safe.”
Others had a similar story to tell.
“I have not had many people stressed about coming in because they know we take infection control very seriously,” said another hygienist.
While dental practices have had to make adaptations as a result of COVID-19, one thing remains the same: the inspiring professionalism of hygienists and their commitment to patient safety.
We would love to hear your experiences with returning to practice. How have you been coping? Do you have tips for staying cool with all the additional PPE, or for finding time to fit in hydration breaks? Click here to share your story with the Friends of Hu-Friedy community on our discussion board.