Human adaptability during COVID-19 and how this applies to dentistry
Mohammad Moinuddin explores how adaptable people are during the COVID-19 pandemic and how this now applies to dentistry.
On 23 March 2020, the UK went into official lockdown as a response to the global COVID-19 pandemic. For most, this is their first experience of such an official measure. Indeed, for all it would mean a complete change to their way of lives as they previously knew it.
Many have struggled whilst these measures were in play, and indeed continue to struggle to this day. This is from the emotional impact of not being able to visit family and friends, the physical impact of forgoing lifestyle habits such as the gym, team sports and other recreational activities, or the financial impact from jobs and businesses being negatively hit.
Despite these devastating blows however, the strength of human adaptability is evident. The will to survive is fuelling many to adapt their lifestyles.
Both large organisations and individuals are tapping into their innovative natures to maintain an income, whilst complying with restrictions.
In doing so, they discover their own adaptive ability at such a difficult time. It is this behaviour we aim to explore further, as well as how it applies to the field of dentistry.
Human adaptability through the ages
Many describe humans as possibly ‘the most adaptive species’ to exist. This historically pertains to adapting to new climates as we spread our existence across the globe.
During these large geographical changes, we also develop a cultural adaptability, through what is known as ‘improvisational intelligence’. This is a unique cognitive capability enabling us to acquire locally adaptive behaviour within a range of environments.
This is in contrast to other animals, who we describe as exhibiting a ‘dedicated intelligence’. Here, they learn behaviours suited to a particular environment and fail to adapt when the environment changes (Pinker, 2010; Tooby and DeVore, 1987; Boyd, Richerson and Henrich, 2011).
When relating this to today’s picture, one could argue that it is indeed these adaptive capacities that we are tapping into to survive during such unprecedented times.
At such a unique time as today, science and technology enhances our ability to do so. Compared with pandemics of past decades where such advancements were not within common grasp.
How do people adapt?
The jobs which have suffered the most during this outbreak have been those which cannot be performed from home and those requiring face-to-face interactions with clients.
These largely include events, live entertainment, agricultural, hospitality and travel industries. Within these, many have also not been able to access various government funding schemes. Adding further insult to injury.
Many from such industries are forced to identify ways in which they can still maintain an income by adapting their skillsets.
Whilst some have had self-inspired ideas, others turn to help from experts in the fields of business and finance.
As an example, one lady whose high street shop had to shut, subsequently set up a knitting website. Equipped with virtual classes and instructional videos for people to subscribe to and learn from. What was once simply a hobby became her renewed source of income.
In another example, a photographer turned photo and video editing skills towards online seminar production for other clients.
Furthermore, an actor in the West End was able to set up online singing and acting classes. Creatively, this serves not only to maintain his passion for the profession but also allow him to discover a passion for teaching others his craft.
Further still, with many working from home, even large corporations discover the benefits of this style of working. Many are considering restructuring the office environment on a more permanent measure.
Of course, not all are fortunate enough to adapt in this way to counter financial losses. Largely due to either a lack of knowledge or resources with which to do so.
Application to the dental world
Many may believe dental care professionals (DCPs), falling into the higher bracket of occupations, would not have problems at this time. This has not been the case.
A British Dental Association poll in April 2020 found that 20.4% of dental practices report a risk of imminent collapse by the end of April. Whilst 71.5% of practices say they could survive a maximum of three months.
Private dentists are especially struggling due to a lack of eligibility for government funding schemes.
DCPs experience a reduction in normal working hours and for many a reduction in their regular incomes.
However, this lead to some dentists adapting their methods of communicating with patients. Instead utilising their increase in free time to help fellow colleagues do the same.
There are long and growing list of ways in which dentists have adapted during this time.
Many dentists, as well as general medical practitioners, have begun using online webcam software such as Zoom. Through this they offer emergency virtual consultations.
Furthermore, many dentists utilise social media to offer free consults for troubled patients (such as The Ethical Dentist on Instagram). Or for specific treatments such as cosmetic smile designs, to help plan treatments in advance.
This is an innovative way to maintain, or even in some cases increase the patient base. It ensures the long-term survival of the practice once the UK lifts restrictions. As well as offering a way for patients to address their dental concerns without a face-to-face meeting.
Interestingly, many practices also find that this helps nervous patients. Those who are otherwise too anxious to come into the practice for a smile consultation.
Subsequently, some believe that lockdown has brought forward the concept of virtual consultations by several years.
Dentists helping dentists
As well as helping patients, several individuals have set up platforms to help other DCPs too.
For example, the Facebook group ‘Deciduous – The Young Dental Forum’ was set up during the lockdown. It enables the sharing of clinical scenarios, questions, and treatments with other dentists. This helps garner advice and encourage discussion for the educational benefit for all.
Similarly, many dental organisations produce free weekly seminars and live webinars on key topics. They deliver these via platforms such as Zoom and social media sites. It ensures dentists maintain their knowledge and skills during the three-month clinical abstinence. Without the limit of finances.
Some have been creative through writing dental articles and books. Others produce dental films and instructional videos for both patients and fellow DCPs, or maintaining manual dexterity and anatomical knowledge by taking up dental drawings and wax sculpting.
These adaptive measures are key examples of how DCPs utilised lockdown to maintain their knowledge, skills, and patient demand. It ensures the survival of their practices once restrictions lift.
Along with this, the altruistic nature of the dental community towards its peers is uplifting to witness and be a part of.
Humans have shown throughout history that there is an innate desire to thrive. The ability to adapt to changing circumstances contributes to our growth and variety.
During the three months of lockdown, we have seen many forms of this. People find alternative means of weathering the storm.
Reflecting on these examples, it should inspire us to keep the flame of adaptability alive for times like these.
Certainly, it is important to note there are socio-economic complexities to this matter.
Dentistry is a profession where one needs an ability to adapt. With ever advancing technology and research, dental materials and techniques are constantly evolving. We expect DCPs to keep up with changes or risk being left behind.
Moreover, it is an expectation upon DCPs to adapt. Such as when dental procedures do not go as planned, or in emergency situations.
It is inspiring, therefore, to see the adaptive community efforts to ensure dentistry can continue.
Whilst it remains an uncertain time for the future of ours and many other professions, our human adaptability will be more important than ever to ride out forthcoming times. One hopes we can take this wider thinking beyond just the coronavirus crisis.
Boyd R, Richerson P and Henrich J (2011) The cultural niche: Why social learning is essential for human adaptation. PNAS 108 (Suppl 2): 10918-25
Pinker S (2010) The cognitive niche: Coevolution of intelligence, sociality, and language. Proc Natl Acad Sci 107 (Suppl 2): 8993-9
Tooby J and DeVore I (1987) Primate Models of Hominid Behavior, ed Kinzey W SUNY Press, New York 183-237
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