Frankly, the whole of my work schedule has been postponed for the last few days, whilst I have been talking to clients at home and overseas, taking the pulse of what’s going on out there - as well as keeping one eye on the media.
So far, the media have been focused on events in faraway places and, whether looking to the East or the West it has largely been about "other people" and not "us".
Closer to home. about toilet rolls and airline job losses.
But now it's real.
I feel compelled to say my Friday was overshadowed by the awful news in the national press that my friend Ken Finlayson, co-founder of FMC Publications, lost his wife Kimberley to the virus a few days ago during an overseas holiday. Along with the whole dental profession I can only offer my deepest condolences.
I've written an extensive email to my 2020 coaching clients, explaining my own plans for the next 4 weeks (which are to carry on) and the contingencies should:
I myself present any symptoms;
I’m informed that a client or location that I have visited has seen an outbreak that could have affected me;
A client cancels an event for their own safety reasons - either because of an internal presentation of symptoms or because they consider me a high risk (no offence taken);
A conference organiser cancels for similar reasons;
The Government make decisions, be it school closure and/or travel restrictions, that affect all of us.
First, it's important to reflect upon the science around the coronavirus.
A complete pandemic cycle in any given geographical location appears to take around 12-13 weeks, 60 million people in the Hubei confined zone (about the size of England) presented 68,000 cases and resulted in just over 3,000 deaths.
On Friday, the number of diagnosed cases in the UK rose to 798, though the government believes the true figure to be 5,000 to 10,000, and the first death was confirmed in Scotland, a total of 10 in the UK, every one of them a personal tragedy for family, friends and colleagues.
The majority of the fatalities are those over the age of 60 who have other healthcare issues, notably, Cardiovascular disease, Diabetes, Chronic respiratory disease, Hypertension and Cancer.
If you compare the numbers from Hubei province, notwithstanding differences in early warning, cross-infection control and self-isolation, it seems likely that we have some way to go before the cycle is complete.
We have also seen over the last 48 hours that the Government has tried to slow down the overreaction of the public by delaying the closure of schools and postponement of larger gatherings, suggesting that if we self-isolate too early, it could cause a lengthening of the cycle.
However, matters were taken out of their hands yesterday with the voluntary postponement of many sporting events and this (Saturday) morning the Government are clearly U-turning and will announce further measures in the hours ahead.
In the rest of this post I want to deal with the issues that my clients are facing today around the Covid-19 pandemic.
Unless I've missed it, there has been a singular lack of guidance from the CQC, the GDC, the BDA or any other recognised dental authority, so it seems that many dental practice owners and managers have been left to make their best guess at what to do next.
I'm seeing banner headlines on websites, posts on social media, emails to existing patients and posters in patient lounges that basically reiterate the information available in the national media about prevention and also about not showing up if you present symptoms.
However, what I'm not seeing are any answers to some of the real concerns that dental team owners and members have about their own immediate future:
Owners - if the practice closes, how long that will be for and how will I pay the bills?
Team Members - If the practice closes will I get paid?
Everybody - If the patients stop coming what are we going to do?
(sorry about the apparent lack of compassion but these are the #1 questions I'm hearing).
I'd like to address these concerns here and now.
The first step for all of us in the small business sector is to grab a sheet of paper, draw a line down the middle and head the left hand column "BPO" and the right hand column "WPO".
BPO = best possible outcome:
Business as usual in that the practice stays open and the cancellation rate stays within tolerable limits.
WPO = worst possible outcome:
Can I suggest that your WPO is likely to be a 4-week closure of the practice as the virus peaks and passes? However, it may be that closure only happens if a member of your team or a patient confirms their infection and you are required to close and quarantine. It really is a WPO.
Perhaps a compromise WPO is that the patients stop attending but the practice stays open? Lights on, team present, no dentistry.
The next step is to then list beneath WPO your contingency plans.
May I suggest that your most important tactic around the WPO is to communicate.
I've been asked more than once in the last couple of days "do you think we should keep paying our team ?" and my unequivocal answer to that question is a resounding YES for two reasons:
I think you have a moral obligation to do that and
If your WPO is a practice that is open but with no patients, you have the equivalent of a ship in dry dock and, as such, a golden opportunity to decorate, repair, deep clean, reorganise, move, train and create the systems that you may have been putting off for ages.
I wrote a blog post in January, reflecting on feedback from numerous owners and managers who were telling me that they didn't have enough hours in the day to get things done. Well now you may have.
So your planning for WPO can include a detailed list of all the projects and training that you will get done if the flow of patients slows down or stops.
Dare I say it (and please understand that this isn't some smarmy sales ploy on my part) but with over 36 hours of verifiable CPD on our e-learning platform, this would be the time for the whole team to use a resource like that for a learning fest.
The sooner you tell your team that their wages are safe - the better - because team members that I know are genuinely worried that they will not be able to pay their own bills on Statutory Sick Pay.
Here's a WhatsApp message one of my clients sent to his team at 17:00 on Friday:
To everyone in the team I realise there is a lot of concern over Covid 19 on many fronts including wages etc. Things undoubtedly will change constantly over the next few weeks and months and we will no doubt have to adapt and possibly alter working arrangements. I just want to reassure EVERYONE in our great team that I am here to support EVERY team member and I have multiple plans already to cope with any scenario. Everyone will be supported financially. In the meantime it is business as usual. Have a great weekend and see you next week. Best wishes.
Leadership in this area will pay you back a thousand-fold in the future.
Team (freelance associates, therapists and hygienists)
This is more problematic as the individuals concerned have chosen independence and their average income is usually much more than payroll team members.
This is a tough call and I suggest that circumstances will vary from one practice to another.
If a freelancer works for you full-time, you may take a different view than an individual who spreads their work around a number of practices.
I've been thinking about this for the last 48 hours and have reached the conclusion that if the practice is closed, then the freelancers just lose their income. However, if the practice is in the dry dock we described earlier, then you might offer your freelancers a nominal hourly rate to come in and assist with the activity planned for the period in question?
p.s. Salaried apprentice dentists, therapists and hygienists get paid in the same way as the team.
Suppliers and Lenders
We may well be entering a period in which paying your suppliers and lenders gets tough. The golden rule here is to avoid silence at all costs. There's nothing worse than being owed money by a person who isn't communicating - it always forces the supplier and lender to assume the worst.
You'll probably absorb the general expenses of the business, from utility bills to incidental running costs.
Your WPO strategy is to open the spreadsheet and identify:
Which suppliers and lenders you need to open a channel of communication with ASAP;
Decide what you are going to say them or offer them during the WPO period;
Decide which non-essential expenses may have to be delayed or curtailed during the WPO period
p.s I'm conscious that I may be shooting myself in the foot here as my coaching can be classed as non-essential. My own WPO is that some clients either cancel individual visits and/or delay payment of retainers and so I'm opening my own spreadsheet on Sunday morning to plan for that.
Finally, the patients.
Like me, you have probably been inundated this weekend with emails from train companies, hotels, airlines and all sorts of other service providers, explaining what their Covid-19 strategy is and asking those presenting symptoms to stay away.
Well you have a responsibility to do the same - and, let's face it, there's enough material out there for you to plagiarise and adapt to your circumstances.
I mentioned earlier my email to clients yesterday afternoon to say "business as usual unless and until I can't carry on."
If you can and will stay open - THEN TELL YOUR PATIENTS - so that they can be in no doubt.
Incidentally, you might also want to tell them that your dental practice could be the safest place in town, given your experience with cross-infection control.
Perhaps tongue in cheek, you might want to mention to any patients who have been on a waiting list for higher value treatment that this may present a one-off opportunity to accelerate their appointment and get the job done. Don't shoot the messenger - a client mentioned that to me on Friday.
Understand that Covid-19 is serious and will get worse in the UK before it gets better;
It will get better but may linger as a factor until the end of May;
Create your WPO list either on your own or as a joint exercise with your team (better) - DO IT NOW;
Reduce your team anxiety by confirming that their income is secure;
Communicate and plan with your suppliers and lenders;
Tell your patients exactly what you are doing and how safe you are.
A thought on CSR
Much has been said in recent months about Corporate Social Responsibility.
We all enjoy raising money for good causes and striving to be as environmentally friendly as possible.