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Small Business – July 28, 2020

A Values-Driven Family Business Adapts to COVID-19

Photo: Aaron Yoshino

With so many family-run businesses in Hawai’i, we wanted to learn firsthand how local businesses are successfully adjusting to a ‘new normal’ with COVID-19 by implementing safety measures and opening back up to fully serving customers.

Uehara Family Cosmetic Dentistry was established more than 30 years ago by Germaine, Garret and Jill Uehara in Honolulu.  Their Hilo practice, Island Ohana Dental, is double the size and capacity of their Honolulu operation, and together, they employ four associate dentists and several hygienists. While eldest sister Germaine has retired from treating patients, Garret’s wife, Lynn, manages both offices, applying the many skills she learned in a career in management engineering, and is the glue that holds the practice together.

“Running a business is challenging, but it can also be enjoyable and more successful if you focus on relationships with staff and customers and discipline yourself to spend the first part of your day making a “To Do” List,” Lynn said. Her daily list includes everything that needs to be done, prioritizes the most urgent tasks, determines what can be accomplished, delegates with clear instructions tasks to be completed, and understands that whatever isn’t completed is moved to the next day’s list.

Under Lynn’s management, both practice locations remained open for emergency dental care throughout the state shutdown with a skeleton crew and abbreviated hours.  From March through May, as information about COVID-19 and guidelines for re-opening seemed to change daily, constant communication with staff and patients was critical.The practice’s priority was informing patients that while routine appointments were postponed, emergency care was available.  Another priority was to ensure that employees had continued income and health coverage.

Uehara Family Cosmetic Dentistry communicated with patients by sending mass emails, phoning patients to reschedule appointments, and posting announcements on their website. While dentists have always had some of the highest hygiene requirements of clinical providers, to handle the unprecedented pandemic the staff created a COVID-19 Office Protocol: all patients, guardians and caregivers coming to the office must complete a screening questionnaire to make sure that they do not have symptoms of COVID-19, have not been in recent contact with someone who has COVID-19, have not travelled outside of Oahu recently and are not in a high-risk category.  Only patients with scheduled appointments may enter the office, and wearing face masks is required of both patients and staff.

“…Because we treat our patients like family, many want to come in because it’s like seeing your family/friends after being isolated for so long.  I think it produces a sense of normalcy which is so important for our community’s mental health.  Of course, we take significant precautions to ensure our patients’ and staff’s safety and health, but I think it’s the trust and relationship we have developed with our patients over the years that allows them to feel comfortable coming in to receive dental care.”  — Jill Uehara

The full staff returned beginning in mid-April to prepare to see non-urgent patients in May. Normally staffed with up to 3 hygienists each day, only one hygienist worked at a time as the practice put new systems and procedures into place to ensure compliance with ADA, CDC and local guidelines. Gradually a second and then third hygienist were added back to the schedule. The practice continues to schedule fewer patients and staggers appointment times to help maintain social distancing.  They are considering permanently staggering appointments as it also makes it easier on the front staff and increases efficiency.

 “Our patients, who are like family to us, have mostly wanted to come in for their dental care.  Of course, those who are immune-compromised are recommended to wait if they can for their cleanings for their safety and to limit their exposure, but amazingly most of our patients want to come in.  We also have seen a rise in the number of new patient requests, and we are accepting new patients. However our first priority for cleanings is with our current patients.”  — Jill Uehara

Because dentists are essential workers, Dr. Garret and Dr. Jill were able to fly back and forth to their Hilo practice weekly as normal without having to quarantine.  The level of staff comfort in returning to work was different at each office, so the importance of communication, working with employees to plan and work through the “re-opening,” and being flexible were critical for success.  Hygienists are currently not performing cleanings using ultrasonic scaling which can produce aerosol (air-water droplets); they hand scale instead.  Aerosol procedures are kept minimal and controlled within the office. Doctors and dental assistants have always worn surgical masks, gowns and gloves, but they now don face shields as well.   Building trust and loyalty with staff is just as important as establishing patient trust and loyalty.

To make their offices safe for patients and staff alike, patients are not asked to sign credit card slips.  The use of pens is kept to a minimum and all writing devices used by patients are disinfected after each use.  The waiting room no longer offers magazines or children’s toys, since these items are difficult to disinfect.  Clear plastic screens (sneeze guards) have been installed at the front desk to minimize exposure to airborne pathogens. Dental/medical air purifiers with UV-C germicidal technology are in use.

Speaking to the Uehara family, it quickly becomes apparent that the spirit of giving, sharing, teaching, and extending a helping hand to others remains the driving force behind their thriving enterprise. Garret began his career in Hilo soon after his graduation from dentistry school. “I had no job, I had no patients,” says Garret. Yet he built a practice, and when he went out on his own a few years later, Germaine and Jill joined him. From that point, he says, things just took off. “It grew beyond our wildest imagination,” said Garret.

“One reason our practice is successful is that we always wanted the best for each other,” shared Jill. “Sometimes one will be more successful, but if you want the best and you’re the cheerleader for each other, it will grow your business. That kind of spirit is why our partnership has been successful.”

A shared vision and a genuine desire to celebrate one another’s achievements and unique gifts have been important, too. “Our parents always raised us with the understanding that nothing is going to be perfectly even. We try to make things as fair as possible,” said Garret. Jill chimed in, “Why business partnerships sometimes fail is that they want to make everything equal. Nothing is even.”

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, of course, and navigating COVID-19 has been a huge hurdle. Yet the Ueharas are proud of the company culture and team they’ve established. “We wouldn’t be where we are if it wasn’t for our staff,” said Garret, who shared that once their company culture took shape, hiring the right candidates became easier.

How do they separate work life from family time? One key piece of advice: “Forgive, be patient, yet say your peace,” says Lynn. “We have a rule that during dinners, there’s no dental talk over the family table!” added Garret. The Uehara family’s gratitude is their true heritage, and a hallmark of their success.

Jill added, “We are always doing the right thing for the patients, too. When you come from that place, you will always be successful…We are so interwoven. Every person relies on other parts of the team working together to take care of people in the right way. We’re not a big company where the president is far removed from the team. We work so closely with our staff. Relationships are key, but as team leaders, we need to be the most hard-working.”

Lynn agrees, “ I believe that if you are ethical, skilled, hard working and focused on what is right or best for your client/customer, you will never have a shortage of patrons.”

When asked who would carry the torch forward into the next generation, Garret jokes, “I’m gonna work till I’m 80!” He says his biggest blessing has been the opportunity to work with his sisters. “We’ve never been closer. We’ve never fought more, either,” he said, eliciting laughs all around.

Even in the time of COVID-19, patients continue to bring food to share with the Ueharas. “We love that our patients care about us as much as we care about them,” Lynn says.

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