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  • Breaking News

    A huge hole in dentists' business sees many seek financial help

    The Australian Dental Association's president Dr Carmelo Bonanno at his practice in Woden, ACT. He is still treating patients with urgent and emergency needs.
    News Desk: While some doctors and nurses are in overdrive during the coronavirus pandemic, one sector of the medical community is facing the opposite problem.

    Dentists were placed on level three restrictions by the government in late March. That means they can only treat patients who require emergency or urgent care.

    Except in extremely urgent cases, they are also banned from using equipment such as high speed drills that may cause sprays of saliva and water.

    With dentists receiving little business but still facing high overheads, many dental practices across Australia have asked their banks for assistance, including deferrals on loan payments.

    Paul Presland, the ANZ Bank’s general manager of small business banking, said more than 33,000 small businesses had applied for its assistance package in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The applicants include large numbers of dentists.

    The ANZ package includes deferral on loans for six months.

    “Indications from our dentist customers are that closures are temporary and we’re confident there will be significant demand for services when restrictions related to the pandemic are eased,” Mr Presland said.

    Dentists working at Westmead Hospital before the coronavirus.
    Last week, the Australian Dental Association issued a new item number, 919, for telehealth consultations so that patients who need advice can talk to dentist safely and easily without leaving home.

    The president of the Australian Dental Association, Carmelo Bonanno, said the new item number would telegraph to the public that dentists were still available.

    The consultations by phone or teleconference were not meant to be a replacement for normal preventive checks. “It’s for patients with an acute event such as toothache, broken tooth or damaged dentures or swelling or bleeding from their gums,” he said.

    Dentists couldn’t treat a patient by phone or video but they could determine the urgency of the problem by asking about pain and swelling, and whether pain killers were working.

    Dr Bonanno said he hopes private health insurers will provide rebates on the new telehealth item number, given they are still receiving premiums at a time when they aren’t paying out on most ancillary benefits.

    In Camberwell in Victoria, dentist Stephen Liew’s business has shrunk by as much as 90 per cent. His practice is staying open for urgent care. To keep paying other staff, including dentists and dental assistants, Dr Liew and his partner have forgone their own pay.

    He says the government’s new JobKeeper program will also help, describing it as a great initiative.

    Dr Liew said dental practices are small businesses with particularly high fixed costs, amounting to about 70 cents in the dollar.

    “Urgent and emergency is only 10 to 15 per cent of what we do,” he said. “We are regulated as a mini operating theatre, so you have incredibly high overheads and standards. But if you don’t meet them, you could breach the laws. Those expenses keep going on.”
    Camberwell dentist Dr Stephen Liew.
    Dr Liew and his partner decided to keep their practice open because if they could treat someone with a dental emergency, it could keep that person out of a hospital emergency room. “There is no higher principle for a healthcare provider now,” he said.

    Some dentists, especially older dentists who may be vulnerable to the virus, have decided to close for the duration of the pandemic.

    But Dr Bonanno thinks “dentists will be run off their feet” when restrictions are lifted.

    For those needing a dentist during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Australian Dental Association has an updated Find a Dentist directory.

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