Emergency Preparedness Guide for When Natural Disasters Strike
When it all starts to crumble around you, all you can do is lift your head and smile.
April 2020 was when my world came crashing down. As if a global pandemic wasn’t enough.
As practice managers, we prepare for the worst. It’s just part of the job. Can we ever be fully prepared?
I have come to the hard realization that the answer is no.
We utilize our resources to keep our practices safe from the outside; OSHA and HIPAA processes, Cyber Security training, and HR procedures help us fend off attacks that can cause havoc in our practices.
No one ever prepared me as a practice manager for a global pandemic, OR a natural disaster. Having both of these nightmares occur with our practice at the same time was beyond me. Was I prepared for this? Not. How can you ever be fully prepared for a tornado to destroy your practice? However, having not only lived through it but learned from it, I feel the need to share and help others be more prepared than I was.
The Day That Changed Everything
So yes, a tornado hit our practice three years ago, on Easter Sunday, April 12, 2020.
It started as a beautiful day as we celebrated the Resurrection from home. We were still adjusting to this new life post-pandemic. My husband and I woke up to a loud siren notifying us that we were under a tornado watch. At 11:37 pm, my family and I took cover in our hallway. I still vividly remember the terror I felt while my house was shaking.
At 1:00 am, I received a call from a coworker in panic, stating her apartment building had been hit. The office was just half a mile from where she lived. After a few text messages and phone calls, I had been notified that the East Brainerd area was in the direct path of the tornado and was heavily damaged. “There’s nothing we can do right now,” my doctor stated over the phone. “We will assess things in the morning.” Worry and angst consumed me for the rest of that night. Needless to say, I didn’t do much sleeping.
Where Do We Go from Here?
The main roads to the office were blocked that Monday morning as we came in to assess the damage. Luckily, with all the covid regulations, our schedule had been extremely light. I worked frantically from home messaging patients and letting them know we would call them back to reschedule at a later date. We had no idea when we would be in a position to start seeing patients again. We forwarded the office phones to my cell phone, as the phone service and internet were knocked out at the office.
I couldn’t help but think how unfair this was. I know life isn’t fair, but why us, why our practice? It was the Monday after Easter Sunday. We are a faith-based practice. Why would this happen to us?
With each trial, comes some very hard-learned lessons…
There Is Always a Bright Side
My faith and my doctor’s faith helped us lead through the trying time. We knew we had to be strong for our team. During the rebuild, we worked at a temporary location, it was not the ideal situation, however, it did have its perks.
It was a trial that brought our practice together. We had the love and support of not only each other but also so much support from our dental community. Fellow dentists allowed us to store equipment in their practices during our downtime, incredible reps from our supply companies helped us get back up and running at our temporary location, and reps were willing to dig up old invoices with our past orders of equipment and supplies we lost in the damage (which we needed for insurance as well as reordering).
Know Your Numbers
Do you have last year’s payroll, invoices, production numbers, and collections recorded and stored? If a natural disaster strikes and destroys your practice, you will need all this and more to compare your profit and losses. You will have to prove what you would have produced during the time you were out of commission.
Invoices are a big help as well as an inventory list. Not just an inventory of what’s in your storage room, but also of what you’re currently using. Your list should include things in use in your op rooms such as dental supplies, office supplies, computer equipment, dental equipment, chairs, lights, dental instruments, etc.
Also, take photos and videos. When you set up your inventory, take a photo of what your drawers in the operatories look like. This will help with stocking, training, and consistency within your multiple op rooms. If a disaster strikes, you have proof of what was on hand.
Electronic is both good and bad. Having a text messaging system in place during this time was a huge lifesaver. I was able to see a list of the patients who had confirmed since I was unable to remote into our patient software system to see the schedule. Every day, make a habit to print your schedule and detailed list of patients for the next day. If you ever have a power outage or server issues, this will save you. Sometimes hard-copy paper is still the way to go.
Having a VOIP-hosted phone system allowed me to manage our practice phone system from my mobile phone with ease. Not only could I access voice messages, but I could answer from any location.
During the time I worked from home, I was able to set up electronic billing and invoices as well as view EFTs. This allowed us to view incoming and outgoing finances for the practice. Anyone in the administrator role knows our job never stops. Even when patients aren’t in the chair, we still receive EOBs from insurance companies and payments.
It’s also wise to have backups for each job description in the office. Emergency preparedness can be used in our everyday activities such as managing inventory with equipment, supplies, etc, but make sure you have your SOPs and job descriptions in place as well. If an employee is sick, on vacation, or on maternity leave, do you have their job duties covered? During a loss of an employee or doctor, what is your developed backup plan? One of our physicians had a medical emergency, and luckily we were able to move the schedule around so that it would not interfere with patient care.
Talk to Your Employees
Buildings and computers and all the “stuff” can be replaced. However, your good employees can’t be replaced. After the tornado, there was a brokenness. Not just with the physical structure of the office, but within the office. Our employees were broken.
After the chaos of cleaning up, moving, and rescheduling, not only were the employees tired, they were sucked dry. When there is a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, it has to be addressed. We must keep in mind that our employees spend 8+ hours a day at our practice. This is their lively hood, their career, and their way of providing for their family. If the practice is gone, how will they pay their bills, feed their family, or pay their rent? The effects on your team can cause trauma, anxiety, and even depression.
Do check-ins with your team as you do your patients, are they ok, are they stressed, what are they thinking? Losing the backbone of the practice, a good team, can be very detrimental in more ways than you can imagine.
Be Prepared for the Worst
Going through a natural disaster is not something everyone will experience. However, it is something everyone needs to be prepared for. If you plan for the when vs. the if something happens, you’ll have more control of the chaos.
After almost three years we have a third of our original employees from that day still with us. But, we have more than doubled our staffing, productivity, and space. Our practice has grown so much, we have more space for our patients, more smiling faces to greet, and patients to treat. I am honored to be on this next journey with new techniques, and innovative ways to give the best care to each individual who walks through our door. When our patients walk into our beautiful and newly restored lobby, they don’t see all that we have overcome to make it possible to take care of them, however, we will never forget it.
About the Author
Jenny Brown, MAADOM received her Bachelor of Science in Public Health from East Tennessee State University in 2019. She began working with East Brainerd Oral Surgery in Chattanooga shortly after graduation. Today, Jenny manages two offices and 25 employees. She is the founding president of the Tennessee Valley AADOM Chapter, and earned her AADOM Mastership (MAADOM) designation in 2020. Jenny is a member of the ADAA, TDAA, and several other professional organizations. During her free time, she enjoys playing the piano, reading, blogging, traveling, and spending time with her family.