Tiffany Tompkins, dental hygienist, dons her personal protective equipment before Betty Vinson's routine cleaning.
Tiffany Tompkins, dental hygienist, dons her personal protective equipment before Betty Vinson's routine cleaning.
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University Dentists resumes practice with safety in mind

Published on Monday, June 29, 2020

By: Kate Royals

University Dentists, the faculty practice out of the School of Dentistry at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, is back up and running after a major interruption the last few months.

The school’s 28 providers, which includes prosthodontists, oral maxillofacial specialists, periodontists, pediatric dentist and an oral pathologist and orthodontist, are seeing patients at about half the normal capacity. While the procedures they offer remain the same, a lot has changed since COVID-19 reached Mississippi and began spreading in March.

Portrait of Dr. James Lott

“Coming back after spring break, it was basically like we turned off the faucet,” said Dr. James Lott, associate professor of Care Planning and Restorative Sciences.

For several months, the dentists and staff saw only emergency cases. Beginning in May, however, routine appointments resumed.

The practice is operating under the new guidelines released by the Mississippi State Board of Dental Examiners. The Board developed a phased approach that culminated on May 18, then allowing dentists to see all patients for essential and nonessential procedures.

“Things are starting to feel a little less strange and more normal. Getting used to the new PPE (personal protective equipment) and room disinfection protocols has been the biggest change on the provider side and has also affected the timing and scheduling of our patients,” said Lott. “Properly cleaning the rooms now takes more time and has lessened the number of patients we can see in a day.”

Dental hygienist Tiffany Tompkins along with other hygienists has adjusted her schedule to open up what is normally administrative time to catch up seeing patients who had their appointments canceled during recent months.

Tompkins spent the last few months seeing only emergent patients and working in the UMMC Reserves, UMMC’s program that deployed faculty and staff from areas that experienced suspended operations due to the Medical Center’s COVID-19 response into other areas of need. She’s glad to be back seeing patients – even under the new conditions.

“It’s definitely different than what it used to be, and I don’t think that will change any time soon,” she said.

Betty Vinson of Madison came in for a cleaning with Tompkins and said beyond the extensive PPE and the protocols before and after the appointments, the procedure during the appointment remained normal. 

Vinson said she did not feel at all apprehensive about returning.

“With it being a hospital, I figure there are probably more precautions being taken here than anywhere else,” said Vinson, who has been coming to University Dentists for nearly 20 years.

She also said it helped her comfort level to know anyone who enters the building has his or her temperature checked beforehand.

“Where I work we take employee temperatures and the temperatures of anyone who comes in, so I appreciate that they do that here as well,” she said.

The temperature screening is part of the new guidelines by the Mississippi State Board of Dental Examiners. Patients who come can now expect their dentists to utilize telehealth and to do as much as possible electronically ahead of appointments. 

Patient waiting rooms have been scaled back to provide proper social distancing. Patients are asked to show up as close to their appointment time as possible and to come alone so the waiting areas are used for patients only.

At that point, a team member is present at each of the three open entrances and will take the temperature of anyone who enters. If the patient does not have any symptoms and passes the screening questions, he can enter the building and sanitize his hands at a cleaning station before going back to the treatment room, where he may do a pre-procedural rinse with a hydrogen peroxide povidone solution before being examined.

Because some dental procedures create aerosol or splatter and put the dental staff at risk of transmission of COVID-19 or other viruses, dentists, hygienists and assistants are required to wear extra PPE.

If the procedure they are performing is aerosol-generating – for example, dental fillings, surgical procedures and dental cleanings – the provider will wear a mask, a face-shield and gown. Dental examinations and other hygiene checks require only a mask, gloves and a gown.

Lott said the goal is to limit people in and out of the treatment room as much as possible. Instead of a dental assistant or another staff member exiting the room to grab a piece of equipment out of the supply closet, there is now an employee stationed in the hallway who retrieves any needed supplies.

As always, quality of care and safety remain the primary goals for Lott and the other dentists.

“We want our patients to know that we are working to get them in as soon as possible and in a safe and efficient manner,” said Lott.