This week, I had a dental appointment. At the moment, in the UK, dentists are operating a reduced service. Routine check-ups are on hold, but emergency appointments are available and dentists can use their discretion to see patients who they judge are in need of a consultation.
I phoned up my practice last week with a minor niggle. Within half an hour, I was called back by my dentist, who, after talking through my concerns, decided it would be a good idea to see me and arranged an appointment for 10 days’ time.
Given that it usually takes at least a month to get a regular check up, this felt rather extraordinary. I began to worry that my condition might be more serious than I realised.
A phone call followed from one of the reception staff, taking me through some of the steps I would be required to take to minimise the risk of coronavirus transmission during my visit. Then came two emails containing a series of instructions about not arriving early and leaving bags at home.
Finally, a few days before my appointment, there was another phone call from a receptionist charged with carrying out my Covid-19 risk assessment. This consisted of a handful of questions. Was I experiencing any of the main symptoms of coronavirus? Had I been in contact with anyone who had? Had I been self-isolating?
In light of what has been reported about the prevalence of asymptomatic cases of the disease, I found it hard to see quite how much reassurance my negative answers to these questions could offer. Still, as seems to be the general rule of thumb at the moment, the questionnaire was something practical that could be done to reduce – if not eliminate – the risk.
The day of my appointment arrived. As instructed, I presented myself almost exactly on time and rang the bell, anxiously patting my pockets to check that none of the things I would normally carry in my bag had fallen out.
A masked assistant let me in, ushered me to a hand-gel dispenser and instructed me to take a disposable face mask from a pile by the door. Then I went to sit on one of the two chairs in the waiting room that weren’t blocked by social-distancing signs. A wait of ten or so minutes followed, during which another patient walked in, paid and was shown out.
My turn came soon after that. Once I was in the dentist’s chair, the appointment proceeded normally. My dentist checked my gums and dispensed advice in her usual calm and reassuring manner. If it weren’t for her protective visor, I might have believed that this was an appointment in the pre-coronavirus days.
When it was time to leave, however, a strange thing happened. Instead of showing me out, the dentist told me to stay where I was: according to an alert on her computer, reception was at capacity. We would have to wait until a patient left.
And so we stood, the dentist and I, making conversation about the pandemic. We both acknowledged what a strange period it had been. I shared some anecdotes about people I knew. She told me about some of the many restrictions governing her work, which meant that she was now only seeing around five patients a day, with the consulting room needing to be cleaned down after each session and vacated for a minimum of 90 minutes after she uses the drill. It made me feel a bit guilty that I was putting the staff to such trouble for what had turned out to be a minor matter.
My main feeling, however, was one of surprise. I was used to dentists being busy people. While mine is always pleasant, she is usually brisk. Yet here she was, killing time, waiting for the all-clear from reception.
Something had changed. Before the pandemic, as the practice employees whose time was most expensive, the dentists were the ones whose timetables dictated the flow of people. Now though, with safety concerns rivalling financial imperatives, a shift had taken place.
Person-facing interactions were at a premium all round and, with guidance specifying that there should be no more than two patients in the waiting room at a time, the receptionists’ workload had to be taken into account as never before. Now, the dentists also had to wait for the receptionists to finish their work.
Just as has been the case with cleaners, supermarket workers and many jobs that have traditionally been regarded as auxiliary in other sectors, at the dental practice, Covid-19 has altered the visibility and even influence of certain roles. These days, pay grade and skills level are no longer the sole determiners of who is kept waiting. For the moment, time is no longer purely money but safety too.