That’s according to dentist Ben Atkins, president of the Oral Health Foundation, who says reassurances of safety in the chair will be paramount when dental practices reopen their doors.
Explanations of infection control protocols and the wearing of the necessary PPE for certain procedures will play a key role in efforts to get patients back for treatment.
The lockdown legacy might also see a wave of oral health challenges thanks to the nation’s snacking habits over the past seven weeks.
Ben said: ‘Essentially, all dentists will need to push the reset button. This applies for the dental practice as a business, as well as it’s connection to the local community. As with general medical practitioners, dentists and other DCPs will need to feel safe. Providing them with the best protection will need to be a priority.
‘For patients, there will be certain challenges, anxieties and fears about attending a dental practice. Unfortunately, evidence suggests there could will be a reluctance by patients to return. Data we have collected alongside Oral-B says more than one in four (28%) adults are hesitant about returning to their dentist or hygienist after lockdown. This is a sizable portion of the population. We must listen to their concerns and they will need reassurance and support in knowing that it is truly safe to do so. Pleasingly, nearly half (46%) say they plan to return to their dentist or hygienist once practices are open and say they feel safe to do so.
‘Dentists and the wider team must treat this as an opportunity to connect and re-engage with their local community to reassure patients and support their return to the practice.’
With Prime Minister Boris Johnson announcing the government’s COVID-19 lockdown exit plan to the nation this Sunday, Ben said: ‘Delays in treatments could potentially lead to a worsening oral health crisis and much depends on how long dental practices are closed – of course, we will find out what the government has planned for the profession at the weekend.
‘Certainly, the longer closures last, the worse it will be for the landscape of oral health. Clearly, there remains huge concerns regarding PPE and the logistics of social distancing before we resume treatments.’
Ben, who used to run a group of dental practices in the North West of England, also foresees many oral health concerns for those patients whose treatment was halted and left unmanaged since practices were forced to shut their doors for routine dental care, saying: ‘It is likely that, upon return, we could see an increase in the number of UDAs being carried out’.
For many people, eating habits have worsened, particularly when it come to snacking.
Research by the Oral Health Foundation and Wrigley reveals that 38% of adults in the UK admit they have been snacking more during lockdown – four times more than those who say they are snacking less (9%).
Ben said: ‘Snacking is often a sign of boredom and offers a distraction. Many people have seen their work life, social life and hobbies changed or taken away. This could provide an explanation.
‘Stress can changes eating, too. The Oral Health Foundation released research last year that found more than a quarter of British adults turn to sugar at times of stress and it is reasonable to suggest that changes in work and family life could lead to more stress at this time.’
With far more people baking at home than usual, sugar manufacturers, Tate & Lyle, recently encouraged their staff to ramp up their shifts and work round the clock, meaning that new records have been set in the production lines.
Ben added: ‘Any shift in consumer behaviour that leads to more sugar being consumed more often, can have a direct impact on oral health. The message is to keep sugar consumption to mealtimes only and this is what we have been communicating to the public.
‘With dental practices currently closed, early signs of decay will go unnoticed. This will ultimately lead to more invasive treatment down the line.’
The Oral Health Foundation’s annual awareness campaign, National Smile Month, begins on 18 May and runs until 18 June.
Ben said: ‘National Smile Month has relied on the dental profession to support the campaign with oral health promotion in local communities – schools, workplaces, care homes, shopping centres. This is obviously not possible due to the pandemic, which has changed the way our charity is delivering this year’s campaign.
‘However, we are treating it as an opportunity to increase oral health education for people at home and engage them about the value of a healthy smile.
‘For dental professionals, whose lives have been changed through COVID-19, we hope it provides them with an opportunity to continue doing what they love – oral health promotion.’
People with diabetes have a higher risk of dying from COVID-19 and developing more severe complications after infection so dentists and their teams are perfectly placed to discuss lifestyle habits with their diabetic patients as well as those who are obese, smokers or heavy drinkers.
The Oral Health Foundation has resources to help dental professionals to take part in National Smile Month digitally and communicate with their patients online.
There is a digital toolkit for dental professionals to download at www.smilemonth.org.