By Dr. Richard Huot
In September 2004, the author was experiencing one of two hurricanes to hit his dental practice in a matter of three weeks. His first article, “Prepared for the Worst,” appeared initially in the October 2004 issue of Dental Practice Report. After Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and New Orleans, he wrote “Protecting Your Practice Against Disaster” in the November 2005 issue of Dental Economics. This article is about what to do after the impossible: a category 4 near 5 hurricane direct hit on your home and practice such as some dentists have just experienced recently with Ian.
The impact on the individual dental practices will be devastating, and some practices may be slow to recover, quite possibly never opening again due to businesses leaving the area. Your preventive maintenance schedule will be thrown into disarray, and as “snowbirds” slowly return to Southwest Florida, those appointments may be skipped or postponed, as we have seen in COVID-19 and past hurricanes. The survival tips below are intended to help my fellow dentists cope step-by-step as they slowly rebuild their lives. The tips are based on the experiences we relied on, and passed on to our clients, to help us get through those tough times.
Take Care Of Your Family First
Our loved ones need to be reassured that there is hope, despite what appears to be the contrary. I can still remember my then 6-year-old looking at me very seriously and asking me if our home was destroyed. As dentists, we provide a pretty affluent lifestyle to our children, and they need to be told honestly and gently that life as they know it will change quite drastically for them for at least the foreseeable future. Initially, while the damage is too extensive to navigate back to your homes and offices, I would recommend that you concentrate on looking for a healthy diversion such as a “change of scenery” in another geographic location. Some homeowners’ insurance policies cover meals, housing and other expenses while you are not capable of occupying your primary residence. You might even consider attending a continuing education meeting in that time frame! Regardless of what you choose, I would encourage you to keep all of your receipts for food, travel and lodging until you can determine coverage, and stay away from dramatic news coverages to avoid focusing on events that you have no control over, at least for now.
Another option is to reactivate a license you may have in another state as a “backup” if you are looking at possibly being out of your office for anything more than a few weeks. It would also be beneficial to look into the process of obtaining a license in another state if that particular state has a recognition program with another. The process time varies from state to state, but licensure by credentials has been fast tracked since COVID, and many states are looking for practitioners in areas you may like or have visited in the past. Most practice interruption insurances have deductibles or wait periods and have been hard to obtain since prior hurricane years, so finding employment in that extended time frame is certainly in order.
Take Care Of Your Staff Next
Hopefully, prior to the storm, you have given your staff a copy of all the telephone numbers (cell) and addresses of everyone. This “phone tree” will be helpful to get an idea of where everyone is and, as owner, you need to reassure your staff members that you will lead them through these tough times. Until each situation is assessed, I would not make any promises of employment or pay until the local municipalities tell you how they will deal with power and water issues, and you have time to estimate how long your practice will be inactive. A liberal use of available personal time and vacation time is in order to pay your employees in the meantime, if they have accumulated that time for 2022 and prior years. Your staff needs to know that you have empathy concerning their plight, but your financial health has to be secure in order for theirs to be.
In our case, my office manager was a volunteer first provider in the area, so I kept her salary going as she helped our community. She was also able to provide me critical information and advised me when it was safe to come back. She also kept the staff appraised and slowly had them report as work for them to do become available. Once electricity is restored, the office manager can assist you in determining when it is appropriate to start scheduling patients and having staff back. It is critical to instill in your staff that reestablishing a normal work schedule at the soonest time possible is key to the financial health of the practice.
Contact Your Dental Society For Help
The Florida Dental Association and its affiliate dental societies are doing a fantastic job in contacting all dentists affected. Take a look at the FDAS “Storm Proof” guide for helpful hints after the hurricane hit, and how your practice can recover. https://issuu.com/todaysfda/docs/hurricane_guide_2022
The American Dental Association has recovery materials that include methods for managing pay and leave issues following a hurricane, tips for accessing patient information during an emergency and links to guidance from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Contact Your Local Bank Or Finance Company For Help
If you haven’t done so prior to the storm, you should have a business line of credit established with the institution where you deposit your earnings. A good rule of thumb is 1.5 times your monthly overhead expenses. That should allow you to pay most expenses prior to insurance coverage processing and give you financial piece of mind.
If you don’t have one already, a wireless laptop computer goes a long way in keeping you in touch with your community, and on the laptop, you should have all the vital information that keeps your practice running, along with an alternate power source. Your accounts payable software should be loaded, to pay invoices from away, and keep track of the situation in Florida via the internet and email.
Make arrangements to retrieve your practice information from the cloud and, if necessary, install a new workstation/server so that information can be accessed by either you or your office manager if equipment was damaged in the office.
Contact Your Colleagues For Help
With the unprecedented number of hurricanes we experience in Florida, it is truly a pleasure to see how dentists “pitch in” and help their fellow colleagues. We are small businesses and independent as a group, thus may be reluctant to ask for help. Even after utilities are restored, it may make economic sense for two or more practices to merge, due to economies of scale and the permanent loss of patient base due to businesses relocating and financial hardship. Even in affluent areas, going to the dentist will be way down the priority list for a good amount of time for all patients. For any practice agreement of any large length of time, I would advise to get the “space sharing” arrangement in writing to avoid conflicts related to patients, expenses, etc.
For a dentist older than 50, it may make economic sense due to retirement plan rules to sell your practice to a younger practitioner. Starting from “scratch” is a daunting task, capital intensive and may not necessarily the best financial choice at this stage of your practice life. My advice would be to seek practice management consultants who have experience in this specialized area, and to identify practitioners in your immediate area who are potential candidates for merger, buyout, etc.
Maintain A Positive Attitude!
After Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne in 2004, there were some days after we returned where it took everything to assume a normal life, especially since we evacuated once again in a matter of two weeks. Much of the same can be said for what it will feel like once you reach your community. You can avoid “hurricane shell shock” by striving forward and attacking each hurdle one at a time. Designate a fellow colleague or business acquaintance as a “wingman” and share your experiences with people who can help you get through this. Sometimes just having someone there with a different outlook or ability to spot a solution is all that is needed in the tough times ahead.
Dr. Richard Huot founded Beachside Dental Consultants, Inc. in 2004 and is a lecturer and author. He served on the American Dental Association (ADA) ADPAC board from 2008-2012 and was Treasurer in his last year. He was on the ADA Council of Government Affairs and is currently a member of the ADA Standards Committee for Dental Informatics (SCDI); he also serves as chair of the Council on Insurance and Retirement Plans (CMIRP). Dr. Huot graduated from the College of Financial Planning in 1996 and is currently enrolled in the Chartered Financial Consultant program at the American College of Financial Services.