From facing her own challenges in practice to accommodating the needs of her students, Bal Chana recalls how she adjusted to the demands of 2020.

In this series of four articles, DDU members from different backgrounds reflect on how 2020 changed the way they work, talking about their experiences of adjusting to our new ways of working and offering advice for the future from their own unique perspectives.

I am a dental hygiene and therapy tutor at Barts and the London and I also work in a general dental practice two days a week. I qualified from Barts and the London 28 years ago, formally known as The London Hospital.

The epidemic of COVID-19 has become a major public health challenge worldwide and a danger to the general population. Information about this new virus remained unknown, which caused great anxiety amongst many. Everyone was worried about contracting the virus either themselves or by family members.

In March 2020 the prime minister announced that people must stay at home, and all dental practices closed. Personally, I was extremely anxious and very frightened by this unknown situation. I was not sure if I would see my loved ones again. I had been travelling on the London underground at close contact with other individuals and was not sure if I had caught the virus. I only went out to the local supermarket, and my only contact with loved ones was via Zoom.

Returning to work

As a profession, we dental professionals had very little guidance, so we all sat at home waiting. Then in June it was announced we could return back to work, providing we made adjustments to the clinical environment. The practice where I work decided to not open immediately before ensuring that all safety measures were in place.

We had regular online meetings and were consulted on developments for us to return. I delayed my return date until August, as I wanted to ensure I had a good understanding of all the guidelines we were required to follow.

I have worked in practice for 28 years and suddenly it was all very different, and I struggled through my first day back. I am fortunate that I work in a supportive practice, with a great team. I swap between two surgeries on the premises, allowing for fallow time and to wear full PPE. The dentistry was the easy bit, it was all the extra protocols we had to adhere to which were challenging. The FFP3 mask I wore on my first day back in practice was very uncomfortable and left marks on my nose. I was unable to see what I was doing as the mask was steaming up my visor. I was close to tears and felt as though I was ready to quit dentistry.

I spoke to the practice manager, saying I could not work with this mask. I had already tried a number of different masks, and she said the only option was a respirator one. She made a few enquires and finally got me details of a mask that could be delivered before my next clinical session.

My respirator mask arrived as promised, and apart from looking like an astronaut or a bee keeper, I must say it fitted well. I am much happier now, I can see what I am doing, and I feel safe. My patients all feel safe too and are reassured that full cross infection measures are being taken. My days have become longer now, I start and finish 30-40 minutes earlier and finish later, but I am glad to be back doing what I enjoy.

I initially thought patients would feel uneasy about attending, but they were pleased with the measures we were taking and were extremely grateful for it. My diary is now full - bearing in mind that I see only half the number of patients I normally would, due to the extra prep.

I have worked in practice for 28 years and suddenly it was all very different...

Back to school

At Barts and the London, a week before lockdown was announced, it was decided that all teaching would move to online teaching. Clinics were cancelled and provisions were made for online classrooms. Working from home three days a week gave me purpose for the days and helped me keep focused, but it meant days were spent in front of a computer screen. Teaching in this way had its challenges, as I found it difficult to interact with my students.

The final year dental hygiene and therapy students returned to university in September. They initially started with revalidation in the clinical skills laboratory and are now seeing non AGP patients. Having spoken to a number of students at the time, they were all pleased to be back and to feel a sense of normality and structure again in their lives.

The final year students due to graduate in December will hopefully now complete their training by July 2021. The students are very anxious as their training has been extended through no fault of their own. I often hear them saying that they're never going to graduate. A number of their assessments have taken place online, and the Dental Schools Council, the GDC and other key stakeholders are currently discussing scenarios and options to ensure the students graduate in 2021.

Another challenge I had was recruitment of students. Interviews were due to take place at the end of March, but I was advised to explore other ways to conduct these interviews or we would not have had any students to start in September.

In the past we used multiple mini interviews (MMIs) for the selection process, but after long discussions with senior members of staff and our IT department, we decided to conduct the interviews remotely. We had three teams of two interviewers, interviewing potential students over two days.

We had set questions and each interview was recorded. As lead for admissions for the BSc in Oral Health, I was very nervous - what would I do if this didn't work? Nevertheless, I am pleased to say the interviews went well with very few technical issues, thanks to the IT support.

We successfully recruited 16 students to the programme, although sadly they have not yet had the opportunity to attend university as their teaching is all online during this term. Hopefully in 2021 they will be able to meet their fellow students and tutors in person.

I am positive and feel we will get back to some form of normality or will adapt to the new normal. As a profession we are resilient. For a long time to come, things are going to be different and I am sure we will rise to every challenge we face.

All of us have been tested to some degree, but I am hoping that this will all tail off in the near future. In the meantime, my advice to anyone who is struggling is to seek support.

For more information on where dental professionals can find help in times of need, follow the links below:

Coping with stress and sources of support

Dentists' health and wellbeing: sources of support

This page was correct at publication on 27/01/2021. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.