DENTISTING DURING CORONAVIRUS Part 1: Interview with Dr. Robert Lalor

In the first installment of this new series, we’ll be asking questions and getting first-person perspectives on what it’s like so far to practice amid the pandemic. Every region, every practice, every practitioner has unique stories so we’re chronicling them here to give you an up-close and personal look at challenges, solutions and inspiring moments across the country.

“Dr. Bob,” as his patients fondly call him, joined the practice his father founded in 2001 and has expanded throughout the southern tier of New York state. Lalor Family Dental now has four practices including the Lalor Implant Center and Dinosaur Dental, which serves pediatric patients only. Dr. Lalor graduated cum laude from the University of Buffalo with a degree of Doctor of Dental Surgery in 2000.

Q: When did you reopen your practice?

A: We never closed all of our offices and I’m proud of that. We had four practices and we consolidated it down to two that were open five or six days a week just seeing emergencies. In some ways, that was great because we had an opportunity to learn and implement new systems as they were being spat out to us and started to learn more about the virus.

Q: What has been the biggest challenge so far?

A: Lack of clarity, lack of clear guidelines that make common sense, and availability of PPE. Because it’s so difficult to get everything that we need or would like, we’re trying to make things last longer. But then you wonder, “Am I skirting the line here? Is this the best I can do for my team? Is there something I could do better? Are there materials I could get better?” I would rather have everything perfect but that’s a little tricky right now. The mixed bag of information that some people are getting online or through other sources are telling part of the story but maybe not the whole story. I’m definitely over-communicating and trying to look at issues from the perspective of the hygienist as best that I can and try to make sure that we mitigate any sort of risk of mistrust there.

Q: Have the changes in PPE affected your ability to practice?

A: Not in the ability to practice, but in materials. New York’s rules state there need to be 15 minutes after a patient is done before the next one can come into the operatory. That is going to affect our scheduling. We’ll figure out how that goes. We do have larger operatories so that shouldn’t impact us as much as the person who has only one or two operatories. We’ll work around that as best we can and make sure we comply with all regulations and turn over patients as fast as possible.

Q: How has the experience been with patients? Has it been difficult to encourage them to come into the office?

A: The patients who needed to come in were enthusiastic and excited that we were open. We send a ‘How was your visit’ type survey after a typical appointment, but we changed that during COVID to ‘How safe did you feel? How did you feel we did? Did you feel like there is anything we could improve as far as safety protocols?’ We thought that would mean more to people at this time than how we did on their filling. We got a lot of feedback from that, most of it not helpful because it was so positive. It gave us an understanding that the patient thought we were doing a good job. We tried to implement changes early and quickly.

Q: How do you plan on encouraging patients to return and continue their usual care?

A: Luckily, we have high demand, so we continue to use that as a strength, and we’ve kept lists of patients to reach out to get them into the office. Zero pressure on our side, more of ‘if you want to come in great, we will get you in and if you don’t want to come in yet, we can schedule you in a few weeks or whenever you want.’ We’re also extending our hours more than ever to allow for more opportunities for patients to come in. We are now a less busy office, but with more hours.

Q: Have you encountered any challenges with staff members?

A: A few people had some reluctance coming back, and we’ve lost a few who have decided to get out of the dentistry field which is fine. The dentists, the hygienists, they’re committed and still in the field for good. We have a core group of team members that were willing to stick around so my hat goes off to them for being willing to stay and work, putting themselves in harm’s way.

Q: Will dentistry ever return to what it was like pre-COVID? Should it? Or are the new precautions justified, even in a world with a vaccine?

A: My belief is that it will be a lot closer to what it was before. I think there will be some realization as to what studies need to be done to better show who is at risk and what legitimate risks we are exposing ourselves to. There needs to be a universal precaution method that works regardless of the disease. Dentistry has not been a hotbed for cases or the center for a lot of controversy, so I believe that the precautions we have taken and the industry as a whole are probably pretty safe. My assumption is that it’s more difficult than we think to get COVID in a dental environment and following the precautions that have led us to this point are going to be sufficient. Social distancing would be to be the biggest effect—the inability to meet people face to face, maskless, socialize, etc. That is the part that is going to hurt more than what we have to wear while treating patients.

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