Paul Abrahams and Mark Ambridge explain why it's important for practices to support dental labs through the pandemic.
If dental technology wasn’t already vulnerable before the Covid-19 crisis, it certainly is now. At the time of writing, the UK is in the midst of a third national lockdown and although dental practices remain open – even in a limited capacity in some cases – many are not treating the same number of patients each day as they were pre-pandemic. There are numerous and varied reasons for this, including decreased workforce capabilities, the need to adhere to fallow time guidelines, and patient concerns in relation to contracting Covid-19, despite the stringent infection control measures that practices typically maintain.
Ultimately, a fall in the number of patients visiting the dental practice has subsequently reduced the volume of work that dental laboratories have received. This has been the case since the first national lockdown in March 2020, when restorative and prosthetic dental work virtually dried up overnight. Practices reverted to providing emergency treatments only, meaning dental labs had little to no income for several months. Even now, many labs across the country are operating at a fraction of their usual capacity, which is significantly impacting their profitability. The situation has only been exacerbated by the difficulties labs have faced in accessing appropriate financial support.
Indeed, many dental lab owners have received little, if any, income themselves and whilst wages for some lab staff continue to be covered by the coronavirus job retention scheme (CJRS), job losses have occurred and may still be inevitable given that the CJRS is coming to an end very soon. There is certainly a great deal of anxiety surrounding cash flow, generating business and managing staff requirements given the uncertainty in relation to the volume of lab work expected moving forward. Many dental technicians fear that they might be made redundant due to these factors, especially as labs are under increasing pressure to either make drastic workforce reductions or close permanently.
In a recent article published within BDJ In Practice, Steve Taylor – president of the British Association of Clinical Dental Technology (BACDT) – said, “It is anticipated that 85 per cent of dental laboratories within the UK will be making staff redundant. This could easily equate to well over 1,500 dental technicians being lost to the profession. There were only 6,000 technicians registered with the GDC, so this loss would be an enormous percentage.” The delivery of exceptional dental treatment would not be possible without the collaboration between dentist and dental technician, which is why it is alarming to think that many technicians who leave dentistry now may never return in the future.
This would be a significant loss of skills and knowledge, which are incredibly valuable to young dentists, who often rely on experienced dental technicians for support in completing complex and/or advanced cases. Many of these same dental technicians have invested heavily in the latest digital technology to facilitate the quick and cost-effective delivery of highly aesthetic and functional restorations. This cutting-edge technology comes with a hefty price tag, which means that a lack of income for dental labs can ultimately affect their ability to make outstanding payments on equipment purchased through finance plans. Many dental lab owners have had no option but to rely on personal savings or loans to keep their businesses afloat.
The current situation underscores the need for dental practices to support labs wherever possible, which starts with ensuring that the first bill paid at the beginning of the month is the one for any lab work provided. In this case, paying on time is an absolute must as any delays could tip some dental labs over the edge. However, early payments are ideal, considering a dental lab might owe for the cost of certain restorative components and materials. Some companies have increased prices for dental lab supplies due to the combined challenges of the pandemic and Brexit, further emphasising the degree to which labs are being squeezed from all angles.
That’s why it’s also important to ensure that there is effective communication and transfer of information between dentist and dental technician. Good quality impressions/scans and correct shade taking, for instance, are essential in order to reduce the need for costly and time-consuming remakes. Dental practices can go a step further in easing some of the pressure for dental technicians by collaborating with labs that are UK-based and avoiding those that outsource work overseas. The BACD has always advocated for stronger professional relationships between dentists and dental technicians, which is why it encourages members and non-members alike to take action now and secure a brighter future for everyone within the profession.
Now, more than ever, collaboration is vital if dental practices and labs are to ensure a successful recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. The risk of adopting the “every man for himself” approach is that many dental businesses might simply succumb, which could mean losing invaluable skills, knowledge and experience that would benefit the next generation of dental professionals and, in turn, patients. We are all riding different boats through the same storm, so it is to every dentist and dental technician’s advantage that they support each other if they are to see sunnier days ahead.
References available on request.