I’ve owned my practice for 28 years. I have lived through many difficult times where I was the last to get paid or I didn't get paid, but I have never had a conversation like the one I had during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Let me tell you about it and provide some insight based on what we went through at my practice in Texas, and what you may have to face when your practice opens again for business.
The closures will not last forever. States will reopen your offices soon and you could be faced with a meeting like what I had with my staff the week we were still open after the national emergency was declared.
COVID-19 RESOURCES: We’ve created a new Spear Online resource page with practice management and clinical tools to navigate the COVID-19 crisis, so your team has the latest information to mitigate the financial impact and prepare to treat patients once operations return to normal.
See in many states, dental offices were closed immediately. But in Texas, where I practice, we were able to work for a week longer than most offices. We were told to screen susceptible patients and heighten disinfection protocols, so we met as a team to prepare.
Here are three tips to consider as you address your staff about the practice’s eventual reopening:
1) Anticipate their fears, common concerns
Most of your staff don’t have the background to decipher fact from hysteria. Some of their stories may sound like front-page stories from the National Enquirer.
I found it was extremely difficult to have an evidence-based discussion with staff. Logic fails when emotions are strong. Anything you bring up to try and address their fears will be met with a story from the news.
In hindsight, I should have started by saying something more like:
“I understand that we all fear the unknown. We have all heard horrific stories. But the state board has been reviewing all available science and agreed that it is appropriate for us to remain open, while others closed. Furthermore, I am going to do everything in my power to keep us safe. I love y'all like my family and I'm going to take care of you.”
2) Remind them that they are safe at the office
I told my staff that I cannot, and will not, require them to work in an environment that they feel is unsafe. If they did not feel comfortable by the end of the meeting, I asked them to see me and let me know.
I offered to pay for their paid time off and after that they would need to apply for unemployment benefits. They would be welcome to come back when the time is right.
I think that empowered them. I think it also empowered me to know that if something goes wrong, while I will feel horrible, I gave them free will to choose.
3) Maintain a clear safety protocol
It’s essential to have a very clear protocol for keeping your team safe. This did more to calm them than anything else I did that day.
Each state board will outline requirements when we reopen. Once I laid out exactly what we were going to do, the room felt calmer and more resolute. We became a team with a plan. Planning on how you intend to protect your staff will put everyone's mind at ease.
As part of this, you’ll want to outline how staff should communicate to patients on the phone and in the office, so they know you are protecting them as well.
Interestingly, we did not have a single cancellation due to the virus while we were open for that extra week. Patients were more upset we cancelled hygiene than any other issue. I called all those patients and explained why and told them they will be a priority when hygiene returns.
It is understandable for the staff to discuss the virus with the patients and they should be constantly reassuring them that your office is a safe space for their care.
When the time comes to reopen, the rules may be different by state, but the emotions will be the same. Staff need a strong, compassionate leader. Be that person for them.
Jeffrey Rouse, D.D.S., is a member of Spear Resident Faculty.