2020 – The year that keeps giving

Dr. Ricky Harrell offers a look back at 2020 and says that those who practice intelligently and drive innovation will thrive in 2021.

Ricky Harrell, DMD, MA

It would be an understatement to describe 2020 as one of the most disrupted years in recent history. Political chaos, a disputed presidential election, and to top it all off, the proverbial cherry on the sundae — a COVID-19 pandemic that rode in on the winds of March with no definitive end in sight. As both a private practitioner and an orthodontic educator over the past 4 decades, I can honestly state that there has been no public health crisis which has so impacted the practice of dentistry, both in the United States and across the globe in my lifetime.

The introduction of AIDS and the HIV presence in the United States had a great impact on our profession with regards to the importance of universal precautions. Wet-fingered dentistry, for those of you old enough to remember it, went the way of the Edsel. But its impact on dentistry was mainly in how practitioners protected themselves. COVID-19, in my opinion, has a far greater impact that permeates almost every aspect of our practices.

Despite the challenges these current times present, most of us have figured out how to modify our routines to accommodate public health measures to protect society as a whole from the ravages of this disease. Out of the adversity and challenges presented by COVID-19 have sprung innovation and forward thinking about how to resolve these issues. At Georgia School of Orthodontics at a point in the past, I thought that digital patient records with scanned impressions were merely riding the wave of technology into the 21st Century. With COVID-19, some of the disinfection challenges presented by traditional impressions, model pouring, and trimming were resolved by this digital technology.

Like many private practices, we altered our normal routines to check in patients virtually without having greater exposure to the disease in the reception areas. We spaced out our normal visit intervals for appointments and added a virtual visit between actual in-house treatment visits so that the quality of care could be maintained and yet protect the patient population. Alternating chairs in the clinic that allowed for social distancing during visits provided a physical safety measure. Rooms were repurposed to provide safe spaces for the production of aerosols during procedures. Intraoral cameras and holders for cell phones came to the marketplace, which greatly facilitates moving dental visits into the 21st century mode of practice. Teledentistry is quickly catching up with the popularity of telemedicine visits, which the medical profession has been using in remote areas for years. The ability of a practitioner to remotely supervise orthodontic treatment by a resident or skilled mid-level provider is currently being investigated at our institution with research projects addressing the issue. The popularity of the use of clear aligner technology to treat both routine and not-so-routine cases is on the rise.

Current dental students and residents are now being taught safe and effective ways of dealing with COVID-19 in the office and clinic space. These future practitioners are reaping the benefit of being enrolled in educational programs that are preparing them for their future practice situations. The ability of schools to deliver online curricular content has been a godsend for most programs. In a real about-face, educational programs are actually sharing lecturers and content between institutions. I do not feel that this online content delivery would have become as mainstream as it now seems just 10 months into the pandemic.

The toll that COVID-19 has taken on both this country and the world defies description. It is the disruptor of a lifetime. However, if one steps back and looks at the larger picture, COVID-19 has also served as a catalyst to drive innovation in both private practice as well as institutional clinical settings. If there is an uplifting message in all of this, perhaps this embracing of technology can be considered as the silver lining in the COVID-19 cloud.

Everyone please stay safe, and practice intelligently as if your life depends on it. Because it really does!

Dr. Ricky Harrell is one to practice intelligently and keep apprised of the latest trends. Read his practice profile at https://orthopracticeus.com/ricky-harrell-dmd-ma/.

Ricky Harrell, DMD, MA, is a 1979 graduate of The University of Alabama School of Dentistry. After serving 3 years as a general dentist in the Navajo Area Indian Health Service, he returned to The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) and completed his orthodontic residency in 1984. After 22 years in the private practice of orthodontics in Westminster, Colorado, he entered into full-time orthodontic education at the University of Colorado in 2006. Dr. Harrell became Program Director for the PG Orthodontic Residency at the Medical University of South Carolina from 2015-2017 and then came to Atlanta to assume the role of Program Director at Georgia School of Orthodontics in 2017 where he still holds that position. Dr. Harrell is a life member of the American Dental Association and the American Association of Orthodontics. He is an ABO Diplomate and a Fellow of the American College of Dentists.

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