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Reading about the success of rapid antigen testing overseas prompted a Frenchs Forest dentist to launch a bespoke testing service that is safeguarding businesses from COVID-19 across a range of sectors. By Cameron Cooper
As a second wave of COVID-19 outbreaks threatened the viability of her Sydney dental clinic this year, Dr Sara Lonergan decided to strike back.
With three other trusted people at her side, the owner of the Tooth Sparkler Family Dental practice in Frenchs Forest launched SwabMe, a rapid antigen testing service that is designed to protect organisations and their employees from the pandemic. Providing direct medical oversight of the tests as required by the Therapeutic Goods Administration, the team at SwabMe can deliver test results within 15 minutes.
Dr Lonergan says the rationale for the service is three-fold: early identification of asymptomatic COVID-19 carriers minimises the risk of workplace exposure; regular testing at businesses protects the wider community from uncontrolled outbreaks and lockdowns; and quick testing of employees cuts the risk of business closures and reduces costs associated with deep cleaning of sites, as well as the loss of contracts and perishable stock.
Initially designed with a view to safeguarding her own dental practice, Dr Lonergan says the idea behind SwabMe started after earlier COVID-19 outbreaks forced her practice into temporary closure. “I didn’t want COVID to defeat me again. I wanted to feel as though we had some power and that we could make a difference.”
After using SwabMe internally, it quickly dawned on the quartet that the testing service could help a range of businesses. “We were like, ‘Hey, hang on, this might not just benefit my practice. Why don’t we get this out to other workplaces?’ Dr Lonergan says. “We could see the amazing difference it makes to staff. They really feel a lot more comfortable in the workplace knowing that people have been tested.”
The other business partners assisting Dr Lonergan with the SwabMe initiative include her brother Dr Nicholas Lonergan, who has a clinical background as a specialist emergency medicine physician and who is also CEO and chief medical officer at BioU Medical, a firm that provides expert medical advice for clients across the pharmaceutical industry. Commercial director Jude D’Silva is also managing director and owner of Echo Therapeutics, a boutique distributor of pharmaceuticals and medical technologies across Australia and New Zealand. Her sister-in-law Dr Caitlin Brabazon brings extensive experience in emergency medicine to the table.
Together, they have been rolling out the SwabMe service to other dental practices, as well as to major meat processors, food businesses and construction companies that have hundreds of employees performing shift work. With their operations having been disrupted by earlier COVID-19 outbreaks and lockdowns, they are using the rapid antigen tests to better manage infected workers and any isolation requirements.
“They had been hurt before,” Dr Lonergan says. “But our service really helps people’s morale and makes them feel safe because there’s a lot of emotion associated with COVID.”
Not a moment to spare
While she is enjoying running SwabMe, Dr Lonergan is not about to give up her day job. “I love dentistry,” she says.
Tooth Sparkler Family Dental is a general dentistry practice with a wide range of patients, including many children as well as older clients who need dentures. Juggling the demands of the practice with SwabMe has been the biggest challenge for Dr Lonergan, who says she could not have done it without the support of her three business partners.
With high vaccination rates in Sydney, she says demand for SwabMe testing has wound back a little. “That’s kind of good because the dental practice is getting busier,” she says. “It’s swings and roundabouts. COVID numbers go up, the dental work goes down, and vice-versa. It’s just one of those things that you have to ride. Who knows where it will go from here?”
The inspiration for SwabMe stemmed from Dr Lonergan reading about rapid antigen testing in the United States and Europe. She and her brother quickly understood the potential for a service such as SwabMe, which combines onsite screening for COVID-19 using rapid antigen testing with advanced app-based technologies that help to build a more secure COVID-19-safe workplace.
While she is proud of SwabMe, Dr Lonergan still sees herself as “the accidental business owner”. However, she has used the operational skills she has developed through running her dental practice for the past 12 years to bring rigour to the service.
“So, I’ve been the background person making sure that we had the right tests, that we had the right PPE gear, the right infection control and all of that stuff you learn as a dental practice owner. I really enjoy it.”
Meanwhile, D’Silva, and her brother and sister-in-law have added their marketing, business and medical skills into the mix.
No time to stand still
Whether SwabMe will survive for many years to come is not clear. That will depend on how long COVID-19 lasts around the world, and whether rapid antigen testing will continue to be in demand as vaccination rates rise. “It’s so unknown,” Dr Lonergan says.
Regardless, the enterprise has taken her out of her comfort zone and equipped her with new business skills. “The medical world is different to other workplaces such as food and construction, but it’s been a really good learning experience.”
SwabMe has also required her to hone her communication and marketing skills. “So I can bring that back to my practice.”
With the dental practice performing well and SwabMe running in the background, life is busy for Dr Lonergan. It has not stopped her from thinking about other innovations, though. She is considering launching her own toothpaste line, and her team is currently engaged in training an Australian Cobberdog, named Zeus, to become an accredited therapy dog at the practice.
“I love a challenge and I’m always happy to try new things.”