Dangers of Infectious Diseases in the Dental Office
Dental practitioners including dentists, dental specialists, dental hygienists, and dental assistants all face a heightened risk of being exposed to infectious pathogens in their workplace. Dental offices must put strategies in place to mitigate transmission amongst staff and patients.
The COVID pandemic brought new challenges to the sector as the airborne virus could be easily transmitted through limited contact. Reducing transmission risk requires actions from individual workers and healthcare administrators
Dangers of Infectious Diseases in the Dental Office
Without proper mitigation strategies in place, infectious diseases can result in significant economic and productivity strain on the dental healthcare system. In the case of COVID-19, widespread infections amongst dental workers contributed to short-staffing and a reduced ability to care for patients. Infected workers could also pass on the virus to their families and increase the overall disease burden.
Dental offices, hospitals, and health clinics are also common transmission grounds for antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria and fungi. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that nearly 3 million cases of antibacterial-resistant infections are diagnosed yearly. These strains can be especially dangerous for immunocompromised patients. Healthcare workers must take utmost precautions to prevent the spread of these pathogens and keep proper records of identified cases.
Infectious Disease Prevention Protocols
Most prevention protocols incorporate the following strategies:
Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis illustrated the importance of hand washing in 1847 and it continues to be the single most effective method for controlling infections.
Washing hands with soap and water for 30 seconds reduces bacteria levels by 99.9% and greatly reduces the opportunity for germ transmission.
The World Health Organization put forward hand hygiene recommendations for effective infection prevention in healthcare settings. Under the 5 Moments guidelines, healthcare workers engaging in direct patient care should wash their hands before or after five common actions. This includes before and after touching a patient or their belongings, before cleaning a wound, and after exposure to infection transmitting fluids.
Pathogens can also collect and thrive on objects in the dental office. These germs can transfer to a dental care worker, who may inadvertently pass them on to other patients or colleagues. Dental offices must implement a thorough disinfection and sterilization strategy to ensure rooms and communal areas are cleaned regularly.
Patients exhibiting symptoms of an infectious disease should be screened and isolated as soon as possible to avoid transmission. During the height of the COVID pandemic, many hospitals set up separate entrances and intake rooms for patients with respiratory symptoms.
Hospital systems should keep track of hospital-acquired infections amongst their staff or patients to analyze patterns and determine the source of outbreaks. Since international travel is a risk for antibiotic-resistant infections, healthcare workers must ask patients exhibiting signs of infection about their travel history.
Antibiotic overuse is a leading driver of pathogen resistance. According to the CDC, more than a third of antibiotic prescriptions are not necessary. Medical providers and hospital systems can curb gratuitous antibiotic use by educating patients on the importance of antibiotic stewardship.
If a patient presents with a viral or mild infection, doctors should recommend letting the illness run its course rather than prescribing ineffective antibiotics.
Protecting Patient Care Providers
In addition to following the 5 Moments guidelines, dental healthcare workers can reduce their risk of infection and transmission by using appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) at all times. Hospitals should ensure that workers have ample access to PPE and that the items come in various sizes. Ill-fitting protective gear is not only less effective but can also increase the chances of injury.
Gloves, protective clothing, and eyewear can protect against bloodborne and fluid pathogens. Protective masks such as N95 respirators can reduce infection transmission from airborne particles. Staff should also learn and follow proper disposal protocols.
Protecting Technicians and Laboratory Scientists
Healthcare workers not involved in direct patient care, such as technicians and laboratory scientists can also be at risk of infectious disease, either from interacting with patient samples or acquiring infections from their colleagues.
Appropriate PPE can lower transmission risk. Laboratory scientists working with potentially infectious agents should always work in environments with easy access to lab safety features, such as biosafety cabinets.
Protecting Dental Office Facility Staff
Likewise, receptionists, janitorial staff, and billing specialists share the same risk as medical providers when working in the Dental office setting. Distinct protocols for intaking and managing highly-infectious patients can reduce front desk staff’s transmission risks. Staff in these positions are also advised to vaccinate against illnesses commonly present in the healthcare setting, such as hepatitis B, influenza, and Streptococcus infection.
Dental healthcare workers are on the frontlines of both infection transmission and prevention. Following recommendations from leading health organizations such as the CDC and the WHO can significantly reduce the risk of infectious transmission in the healthcare setting.