The Dental Office Emergency Plan

One of the most difficult realities for any dentist to face is that death and disability can strike without warning. Many dentists become aware of a disability in advance and plan accordingly, but most have not made adequate preparations for such situations.

My research indicates that dentists rarely leave a set of written instructions for the benefit of the staff. Yet an Emergency Plan is an essential part of a dentist’s planning. The plan should set out clear procedures to be followed in a crisis situation. If implemented quickly, these procedures can preserve the ongoing viability of a dental practice, and may ensure that the business retains its viability, its saleability and the employment of the staff. Additionally, an issue that is often overlooked is that the patients will be able to return to a familiar environment for their continued care.

In the event that your staff is called upon to act in a crisis, their value to the practice, the owner and his or her family may be more than you realize. You may find it valuable to keep the information in this article with your office manual and your will.

  The Dental Office Emergency Plan

1. The first priority is to secure the practice and maintain the appointment schedule. This begins with an immediate search for an interim dentist to attend to the patients and keep the practice running. This initial step will ensure that income will be generated to pay for both overhead and the temporary dentist. The search for a locum dentist is much easier now than in the past. There are many resources available to find locum dentists, including the classified section of Ontario Dentist. As well, the ODA offers a listing of locum dentists, professional locums in times of immediate need. Most brokers are familiar with dentists who have sold their practices specifically to offer their services as a locum dentist. They are willing to assist on very short notice.

2. I recommend that you avoid having your patients treated by other local dentists. While they often offer their help sincerely in this time of need, they may inadvertently and innocently lure your patients away once contact has been made. If other practices are nearby, patients may choose to transfer of their own volition, adding to the potential patient exodus while the disabled owner is recovering or while a new owner is being identified. I also recommend that an experienced practitioner or locum dentist be selected to treat your patients. Younger dentists, or dentists who have not worked under these circumstances before, often do not have the experience to successfully manage a transition of this sort, leading to serious patient retention difficulties. I believe a professional locum, who is experienced in these matters, is the best choice.

3. Patients scheduled for upcoming appointments should be notified of the situation as soon as possible. A phone call is all that is necessary. The script could read as follows: “I’m calling to inform you that Dr. ______ has had an accident (or other) and he/she will be away from the office for (mention the time of recovery if known) a period of time.” If the owner has passed away, you may begin with: “We are very sad to inform you that Dr. ______ has passed away.” Follow either one of these opening statements with: “We assure you that the office will remain open and your appointment(s) will be honoured. We have made arrangements for a qualified dentist, (locum name), to attend to your ongoing dental care. As in the past, our regular staff (mention some names) will continue to be here to assist Dr. (locum name) with your dental care.” Phone calls should be made only once the locum is secured. Conversations that lack specific information may unnerve the patient and lead to unnecessary rumours.

4. It is not necessary to place a notice in the paper or to send letters to the patients. The new owner (if applicable) should do this to explain the situation carefully when he or she takes over. A telephone call is usually enough in the short term.

5. The outgoing message on the office answering machine should not be changed until the facts are known. In the case of a sudden death, change the message only when the locum dentist’s name is known. This eases the patient’s mind and demonstrates that the practice is organized.

6. In some instances the practice must be put up for sale, and this process should commence at the same time that the locum search is commenced. In some instances, a buyer can be identified within weeks and the crisis could be over quickly if these actions are taken immediately.

7. If the owner has arranged for standing orders with hygiene appointments, they can carry on as scheduled while the locum dentist is being identified. Patients should be notified of this circumstance in advance so they know that their regular dentist will not be there for the recall examination.

8. Maintain regular office hours. A reduction in hours may cause valuable staff to seek other opportunities. This also displays a sense of normality, thus adding to the overall objective of keeping the practice viable. There are always a few long overdue projects, such as recall program updating, to keep the staff busy.

9. A positive attitude when speaking with the patients is essential. Assure them that the practice will continue to care for them even though their regular dentist is not available. When communicating with patients, I recommend avoiding negative terminology such as “The Doctor is no longer here” – or – “The Doctor is very sick”. This implies a loss and patients may focus on only these words. Use words such as, “Dr. ______ will return soon and Dr. (locum name) is a wonderful person.” Show that you are confident in the temporary dentist’s ability and be clear and concise. Long, rambling explanations confuse patients and they may sense a lack of organization and seek another dental office.

10. In the event of death, the spouse, lawyer or accountant is typically called upon to manage the practice’s affairs. They should arrange for an appraisal to be performed and the practice should be immediately put up for sale.

If a dentist suffers a tragedy, this emergency plan will help to keep the practice viable by preserving the employment of staff, the patients’ ongoing care and the value of the business.

Practice preservation is the will for your dental practice. It is the process that allows for you to prepare for the unforeseen. If you have a will, why shouldn’t you have an emergency plan for your practice?

Ontario Dentist – March 2003