• Dentists are following new guidelines from the CDC and the American Dental Association to ensure patient safety.
  • Social media and teledentistry are allowing dentists to show and tell patients that it's safe to come back to their dental office. 
  • Delaying tooth and gum care can lead to other health conditions. 

Video Transcript

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JOHN WHYTE: You're watching Coronavirus in Context. I'm Dr. John Whyte, chief medical officer at WebMD.

I'm joined today by Pat Bauer-- he's the President and CEO of Heartland Dental-- and Bob Brisco, the CEO of WebMD and Internet Brands. Gentlemen, thanks for joining me.

PATRICK BAUER: Thanks for having us.

JOHN WHYTE: We've been talking a lot about COVID-19 over the past few weeks, and now we're turning to how are we going to get patients back to clinic? How are we going to get them back to dental clinics? Pat, what are you seeing in terms of people's readiness to return to the dental office?

PATRICK BAUER: You know, obviously the biggest issue is are we safe? Are patients say? Uh, do they feel comfortable coming in? And the reality is we've been working on sterilization techniques for years, and just normal day-- daily routines is what we do is we protect patients for all kinds of, you know, viruses and everything else.

And so for us, it's-- it's just standard operating procedure. And so we're very careful already, and so it's just getting that message out. So we're going to use telemedicine to-- teledenistry to really try to let people know that they're safe.

BOB BRISCO: Pat, you have something in the order of a thousand dental clinics around--

PATRICK BAUER: Yes.

BOB BRISCO: --the United States. And, um, that's the biggest footprint of anyone in the industry by quite a measure. How are the dentists themselves doing during this period? Can you talk about that?

PATRICK BAUER: Yeah, it's, uh-- you know, they get so much information thrown at them. And so my main job is to get enough experts-- WebMD, other people-- to say here's what the real science is saying. And so, you know, getting through everything, primarily focusing on the CDC guidelines-- ADA certainly has some guidance, but it's literally just guidance. And then we look at the state boards to say what is it that they're really wanting to do?

And remember, I'm old enough to remember when AIDS hit in-- in the '80s, and we didn't have any sterilization techniques pretty much. We didn't have gloves and masks and everything else. And so we had to go through that process. And so now it's just-- it might be slightly different. There might be N95s used for some aero-- aerosol. But the CDC is saying you can use a surgical mask with-- with, uh, uh, a face shield or an N95. So they're not-- either is acceptable.

So once you get through all of the scare, I think our doctors are just thankful that we didn't knee jerk. We're going through the science. We're letting them know without, um, being scared. I think there's a lot of solo practitioners that are just scared.

BOB BRISCO: How are you thinking about patient communications now? I know we've been doing some surveys and seeing that a fair number of, um, patients are ready to come back in. And then, of course, there's a-- a segment that's petrified, is going to hard to get back in, and-- and there's some in the middle. How are you at Heartland thinking about engaging with patients during this transition period?

PATRICK BAUER: More digital than ever. So we're doing a lot of digital, um, communications through Facebook, through all of our-- uh, we have-- like you said, we have 1,020 through 37 states. And then telemedicine, teledentistry. So we're going to do recare or uh, um, confirmations that way so that we can actually see them, tell them it's safe. Here's what you're going to see when you come in.

So it's just letting them know that things are different. You're going to be safe, and, uh, we'll make sure you come in you. Make-- wear masks. It's a whole process until we can get through this over the next 12 to 18 months.

JOHN WHYTE: And then, Pat, how do we help patients recognize that delayed care has consequences? That cracked tooth is an emergency that they need to have addressed. And I think your point is very good that people are-- are fearful about it. They've been told not to come in. And now we need to help them remember that, you know what? Dental health is important for your overall health.

PATRICK BAUER: Whether it be you have prostate cancer and they-- they delayed your surgery to the periodontal disease that you have that's not getting better, um, to a cracked tooth that's only going to break when you're eating bread, nothing hard-- it's going to break when you least expect it. And that's the stuff that we need to take care of that's just being delayed and pushed and pushed to the point where it's going to explode if we don't do something, so.

JOHN WHYTE: You know, we're hearing on the medical side, especially for solo practitioners, that, you know, are a year or two away from retirement. They're just saying enough. I'm-- I'm closing shop early, which compromises access to care. Are you hearing the same in dentistry? And how is that potentially compromising access to care?

PATRICK BAUER: Anecdotally I'm hearing it. You know, I'll have a story. I'm not going to open up because I'm not sure I can even get the PPE, and I'm already 65. What am I-- why am I even doing it anymore? And so I get it a little bit of I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired.

We're not seeing a massive amount of patients-- doctors calling us and say, can you just help me with my practice? Um, it's slightly higher, but it's not, um, massive. I think people are trying to figure it out. But, you know, I have a niece who's a hygentist, and her doctor is just not sure how he's going to get PPE.

So it's mostly the fear of can I get the right PPE?

JOHN WHYTE: Right.

PATRICK BAUER: Can I even start properly? How many patients can I see if I don't have the right PPE? So it's more of is that shortage-- I mean, there's a shortage on hydrogen peroxide right now. I mean, it's literally we can't get it. And so-- and so again, it's not even real that-- that it needs to be used, but it's-- but there's a shortage. And so, um, the shortage on gowns is certainly there.

N95s are tough because then there's a lot of stuff coming in that's-- that's really not-- uh, so they say they're FDA approved, but they're not when-- once they look at the actual product. So there's a lot of stuff that people are thinking they can get. It's probably at least once a day or twice a day that I get somebody who says, hey, I can get you PPE, and it's not true.

BOB BRISCO: A comment and a question. So through our Henry Schein One joint venture with Henry Schein, we have, um, a massive footprint across the dental space, obviously, and we've seen just how hard hit it is. So across, you know, the entire Internet Brands portfolio, travel's been the most impacted, but dental's been the next most. And, you know, we're seeing patient volumes down 85% or 90%.

We've been surveying patients though, and it looks like a lot of them are ready to come back. I want to get Pat's thoughts on-- I-- I don't think we're going to see a-- you know, an immediate V recovery right back to where we were before, but I-- I'm seeing some reasons for optimism that these-- this escalator back to where we were, um, may go more sooth-- smoothly than we hope. But what-- what are your thoughts on how-- where we go from here?

PATRICK BAUER: No, I think we're seeing the same thing that you're seeing. We actually surveyed the last-- you know, in the last couple of weeks of April all the patients that came in on emergency. Now they came in on an emergency, um, and so it's-- it's they wanted-- they needed to come in. But their-- most of their attitude is yeah, I'm-- I'm feeling safe. I-- I felt safe coming in.

JOHN WHYTE: Thank you both for joining us, and thank you for watching Coronavirus in Context.