DentalTCDFall2020

Redefining Essential in the Midst of a Pandemic

Am I essential? As general dental professionals, we do not imagine many of you have asked yourselves this question. By choosing dentistry as a profession, it is safe to assume a certain level of job security and financial stability. Though both of those factors may have been initial lures into the field, what inspires us daily to practice dentistry is the impact we have in the lives of our patients, each created in the image of God. As dentists, all that we work to achieve is essential to the health and well-being of our respective communities. And yet, in the midst of the Coronavirus global pandemic, it feels like oral healthcare was deemed non-essential. States recommended dentists limit their offices to emergency patients only. No handpieces were running. No cavitrons were cleaning. Some dentists were even finding themselves unemployed! Oral healthcare seemed low on the priority list, and any momentum we had made in terms of advocating prevention felt lost.

by Christian Medical & Dental Associations®

Am I essential? As general dental professionals, we do not imagine many of you have asked yourselves this question. By choosing dentistry as a profession, it is safe to assume a certain level of job security and financial stability. Though both of those factors may have been initial lures into the field, what inspires us daily to practice dentistry is the impact we have in the lives of our patients, each created in the image of God. As dentists, all that we work to achieve is essential to the health and well-being of our respective communities. And yet, in the midst of the Coronavirus global pandemic, it feels like oral healthcare was deemed non-essential. States recommended dentists limit their offices to emergency patients only. No handpieces were running. No cavitrons were cleaning. Some dentists were even finding themselves unemployed! Oral healthcare seemed low on the priority list, and any momentum we had made in terms of advocating prevention felt lost.

We recognize these protective measures were made to mitigate the spread of a deadly virus and keep the population safe. We are thankful for local and national leadership that made tough calls with the aim to prevent loss of life. However, with fewer patients, furloughed staff and empty parking lots, it was easy to believe dentistry was non-essential. Our health center, Christ Community Health Services, has not been exempt from many of these hardships. Regardless, the Lord has continued to reveal His faithful character. He has helped us as a health center, and as a profession, to redefine essential.

Christ Community Health Services is a faith-based federally-qualified health center (FQHC) located in Memphis, Tennessee. It is home to the first CMDA Dental Residency [+] Program. The [+] Residency is a three-year discipleship and training program for dentists who have a heart for the poor, underserved and unreached communities both domestic and internationally. We have had to quickly adapt to meet the needs of both our residents and our clinicians. Despite COVID-19, there were still procedural requirements to meet for the Advanced Education in General Dentistry (AEGD) program. There were also hourly requirements for National Health Service Corp (NHSC), which provides loan repayment to many of our second and third year residents. One of the solutions we implemented to meet these requirements was teledentistry. Using a web-based platform called doxy.me, we were able to virtually connect with patients at home, minimizing exposure for both the patient and the clinician. Although dental treatment is limited via telehealth, this was an encouraging moment for our health center as we adapted to restrictions and prioritized the needs of our patients. Some restrictions have even had unintentional benefits!

With a lighter schedule, our healthcare professionals have had more time with fewer patients. I’m sure this has been the case for many of you as well! Rather than rushing from room to room, the limited patient care allowed time for more chair-side conversation. With people isolating at home, oftentimes the dentist was one of their only face-to-face interactions. One of our second year residents, Dr. Scott Stewart, recently shared about a patient he was able to care for during the pandemic. A woman had presented to the office in excruciating pain. During the visit, while Dr. Stewart was waiting for profound anesthesia after administering a block, he offered to pray for the patient and inquired about her needs.

He recounts, “This patient in particular was struggling with isolation and loneliness due to COVID-19. She shared her story of how things had been going in the last couple of months and the strain it was causing. The assistant and I prayed for her, and although I don’t remember what was specifically said, I do remember she was deeply moved. She shared that her church had transitioned to online services, but they just were not the same as in person. She even went on to say that by us praying with and for her in person, it was better than church. I couldn’t believe it! Despite the fact that she was in the dental chair waiting to have a tooth taken out, she felt her visit was better than church because of face-to-face compassion.”

For Dr. Stewart and other dental professionals, experiences like this during this season of the Coronavirus serve as a reminder to see patients as more than a mouth. Our profession is about more than teeth. It is important that we remember each patient interaction is a divine appointment. We have the opportunity to partner with what God is doing in our patient’s life. I am reminded of what is most important, and I find myself no longer asking, “Am I essential?” but, “What is essential?” Nothing in dentistry is forever, but God’s kingdom is an eternal one. When we pray with and for our patients, we usher His kingdom into the operatory. We bring healing in Jesus’ name and oftentimes (literally) restoration! This season has also allowed our dental team to be a part of this healing process both inside and outside of the operatory.

As numerous team members were restricted from their normal roles, Christ Community Health Services began implementing free drive-thru COVID-19 testing in partnership with local and state leadership. The first testing event was on a Saturday morning, and 49 people were tested. That next week, our available dental team began staffing daily drive-thru testing, seeing anywhere from 50 to 150 people. As of the writing of this article, we are testing more than 200 people daily at two locations across Memphis. For the dentists and staff members, it was a sudden shift in responsibility. People had legitimate fears and concerns, but those individuals also expressed a desire to care for the community of Memphis and to help Christ Community be a champion for COVID-19 testing across Tennessee. As we learned about the impact the virus was having among African Americans and people of color, it was easy to see that our testing sites were beacons of hope in our community.

Our response to the Coronavirus has also allowed our dental department to work in collaboration with our medical team, as well as spiritual and behavioral health. In the past, we have often looked for ways to integrate care. Keeping our patients safe from the virus has reminded us of our common goal to see healthy communities healed in the name of Jesus. It has been a blessing to work with physicians, physician assistants and nurse practitioners at the drive-thru testing sites. As we transitioned from oropharyngeal to nasopharyngeal swabs, the medical clinicians stepped up to partner with us at the drive-thru sites. We were able to take our experience working in a dental operatory, with assistants who move around the dentist, and create an efficient testing system that emphasized infection control and kept both the patient and staff members safe. We have also had community partnerships strengthened, as students and faculty from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center have volunteered their time to test patients, collect samples and even direct traffic.

Amidst great fear and loss, we have seen God work through this pandemic to bring about His kingdom. We are stronger dental professionals, and Christ Community is a stronger health center. He is faithful and good, and when He has begun a good work He will carry it unto completion (Philippians 1:6). The pandemic has reminded us that as dental professionals, our identity is not in restorations, prostheses or COVID-19 testing, but rather our identity is in Jesus our Savior. Proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ, and thereby helping to usher His kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven, is essential. We, as dentists, partner with God in bringing about Shalom, the wholeness of His kingdom, to our patients and communities.

About the Authors

William “Travis” King, DDS; a recent graduate of the CMDA Dental Residency [+] Program. He graduated from the University of Texas School of Dentistry in 2017 and completed a year of Advanced Education in General Dentistry at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. Him and his wife Katie live in Memphis, Tennessee and are expecting their first child in early 2021. He currently works at Christ Community Health Services, a faith-based federally qualified health center in Memphis.

Elise Shockley, DDS, is a dentist and the current CMDA Dental Residency [+] Program Site Director for the Memphis, Tennessee location. She graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill School of Dentistry. She then went through the CMDA Dental Residency [+] program. She has worked for Christ Community Health Services for the last five years in Memphis. She is married to Phillip Shockley and is about to give birth to their first child, a daughter. She feels very blessed to be working in public health dentistry and to work with resident dentists. She is excited to see where and how God uses their family for His work in the future.

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