WHEN the first lockdown came in March 2020, dentist Laura Kelly was managing a busy appointment book at Larkhall Dental Institute and finalising arrangements for her spring wedding.
But with just days to go before her stag and hen party celebrations, she was facing the prospect of not only cancelling her big day, but cancelling scores of patient appointments.
It is a familiar tale that played out across the UK in 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic forced dental professionals to down tools and restricted them to offering only limited care and advice over the phone.
“It was a very difficult and uncertain time,” says Laura, 28, who has worked at Clyde Munro’s South Lanarkshire practice for four years. “We had to turn patients away and for a while we could only offer telephone advice. It was frustrating we weren’t able to do more. But we worked together with our sister practice in Uddingston to do the best we could to support patients.”
The practices teamed up to operate a patient telephone line, offering whatever advice they could remotely and referring patients who needed more urgent treatment to the nascent NHS treatment hubs.
Just over one year later, with the NHS mass vaccination programme in full swing, Laura is glad to finally be returning to normal working hours in May 2021. While the practice reopened in June 2020, continuing restrictions meant the dentists worked fewer but longer days, staggering patient visits, in a bid to tackle the backlog of appointments.
Laura says: “We wanted to help patients but we’ve been limited by the restrictions and there were certain things we couldn’t do in that initial phase after reopening.
“Fortunately there are no longer restrictions on the types of treatments we can carry out, but we of course still have to wear additional PPE, as well as having fallow time and staggered appointments.” As restrictions continue to ease, demand for appointments is increasing.
Laura says: “It’s a bit stressful thinking about the backlog of treatments. That’ll take a good few months to clear, but we will get there. We just have to do what we can and continue prioritising those who need to be seen soonest.”
It has been a stressful and worrying time for the profession, but Laura has remained positive and has made the most of any down-time.
In addition to boosting her professional development through online CPD, a key role for Laura has been as a Covid vaccinator, working shifts in her local community centre in February and March.
“A colleague told me positive things about his work as a vaccinator and it encouraged me to look into it,” Laura says. “I was keen to help out because the sooner we vaccinate the sooner we can get back to some kind of normal life. It’s been a really good experience.”
Laura completed around 12 hours’ worth of online modules on topics ranging from immunology to health and safety – watching educational videos, completing assessments and writing up logbooks along the way. Once her training was signed off, she was able to book in for vaccination centre shifts via a centralised “bank” website.
“By the time I got involved, there were quite efficient systems in place for training and booking shifts,” Laura says. “You’d do an induction session for each new vaccination site you work at and then there’s a briefing with the head nurse at the beginning of every shift.”
Laura mostly worked at Whitehill Community Centre in Hamilton, South Lanarkshire, alongside a multidisciplinary team of health professionals and lay volunteers.
There, patients are welcomed at the entrance by the volunteers who check key details including names and temperatures. The patients are then directed through a one-way system to undergo a clinical assessment before finally receiving the jab.
“As a dentist, I did either clinical assessments – where I consented the patients – or I administered the vaccine,” Laura says. “The whole set-up ran really well.
“When I was there, it was a really broad mix of people, with doctors, dentists and other healthcare professionals like speech therapists and opticians. NHS Lanarkshire has since appointed a team of nurses to do the vaccinating, so I received a letter saying they wouldn’t need dentists like me unless they were short-staffed. They wanted to free up dentists to focus on seeing patients.”
Laura has been gradually building back up to full-time working hours. While it may be tempting for some practices to extend opening hours to fit in more appointments, Laura is grateful not to be facing weeks of overtime.
“For months I was going into the practice on alternate days which really limits the number of patients you can see,” she says. “You can understand why it would be tempting to start doing extra hours to clear the backlog, but you don’t want to go back and be burnt out.”
She credits keeping in regular contact with friends and family, running 5Ks and long dog walks for helping her through the challenges of lockdown. She was also pleased to have financial support from MDDUS in the form of reduced subscription rates for dental members.
Laura says: “It was really good that MDDUS reduced the subscription fee when we had to stop practising. I heard from friends that other providers didn’t do that. They also offer really useful online CPD and their advisers are so helpful. That’s why I’ve always stayed with MDDUS.”
Looking ahead to 2021, Laura is hopeful to continue being able to see patients full time, but accepts that restrictions such as fallow time and additional PPE are likely to remain in place for a while yet.
She says: “It’s crazy how quickly you do adapt to wearing all the extra masks and gowns, although the respirator masks are hot and uncomfortable, especially if you’re wearing them for longer procedures. I don’t think I’ll ever complain about a normal day’s work again!”
Laura is also crossing her fingers that in September she will get the chance to swap her scrubs for a bridal gown and finally walk down the aisle.
Interview by Joanne Curran, associate editor of Insight
Photo credit: Ashley Coombes, EPICSCOTLAND