MONTREAL -- Though dental offices across the province have been forced to close due to the COVID-19 pandemic, dentists have taken it upon themselves to keep up with patients’ needs on their own time.

The provincial government has asked dental clinics to remain open only for emergency situations, but in order to identify them, calls must be returned. 

“I’m taking maybe two to three hours away from my kids every day to answer my patients,” said Dr. Robin Pigeon from the Centre de Sante dentaire Candiac. He explained that doing this work helps ease his conscience, as he knows his patients are taken care of. “Everything is kind of changing on a daily basis; we have instructions from our order about what we can do or not. We’re expected to be there for patients for emergencies, but only big emergencies.” 

Big emergencies, Pigeon explained, include cases in which patients have serious abscesses or are in excruciating pain, for example. 

“A big trauma, a big accident – not just a broken tooth,” he said. Though broken teeth are uncomfortable and, at times, embarrassing, Pigeon said the ones at the back tend to break most often. While they may feel a little sharp at first, they dull over time. That’s the kind of thing he tells his patients over the phone as he sifts through his calls. 

Most dentists aren’t eligible for financial aid during this time, meaning their work is done for free. When he has to, Pigeon meets patients in his office to treat them. 

Pigeon, like many other dentists doing similar work lately, said he’s glad he’s able to alleviate some of the pressure on the health system. If dentists could not treat emergency cases, patients would likely head to the hospital instead, he said. 

As public health officials have warned that asymptomatic people could be carrying the virus, treating emergency cases puts dentists at risk. Recently, they were asked to bring their masks to other healthcare centres, to help make up for shortages across the province. 

Some dentists are turning to technology to help them assess whether or not a case is urgent – a clear photo of the affected area sent by text message can tell them all they need to know.

In fact, telemedicine is something dentists and oral specialists are pushing for, even outside of the context of the pandemic. The technology would allow them to consult people who can’t access their centres easily, like people who are immobile, or ones who live far. 

“Now imagine if I could see, through a camera, the oral cavity of a patient at a distance and just assess whether or not the patient must be seen quickly, or if it’s something I can manage… with prescriptions in the meantime,” said Julien Ghannoum, an oral and maxillofacial pathologist. His work involves diagnosing and treating rare oral diseases. 

Ghannoum works out of a hospital, and his practice has also been significantly reduced amid the pandemic. On an ordinary day, he usually sees 20 to 25 patients. Lately, he’s been seeing three to four. 

“It’s pretty disastrous for patients who have chronic conditions but are not considered to be life-threatening in the very short-term,” Ghannoum said. 

As dentists do their best to keep up with their patients’ needs, the stress surrounding eventually having to rebook months’ worth of cancelled appointments looms in the back of their minds. 

“That’s over 1,000, maybe 2,000 appointments,” Pigeon said. “I try to be positive, but I know it’s going to be a lot of work.” 

For Pigeon, appointments are usually booked three months in advance. 

“Where are we going to put them?” Pigeon said. “I think it’s going to be a mess; it’s going to be hard.”