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Will patients delay care due to pandemic-related financial stress?

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The buzz words “social distancing” have reverberated throughout the nation as people and governments sort out what is safe and advisable in terms of human contact with others of unknown coronavirus infection status in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Like many businesses, dental offices immediately shut down in mid-March and felt the pinch of uncertainty as patients and providers alike sequestered and learned about proper behavior to prevent spread of the novel pathogen. Consumers and many businesses have suffered financial strain as pandemic fallout continues. All but emergency services were put on hold for several weeks across the nation in dental practices and dentists saw precipitous drops in collections through mid-May, according to ADA Health Policy Institute (HPI)

“April was a devastating month for the dental sector, with 503,000 jobs lost and patient volume dropping to about 7% of pre-COVID-19 levels,” said Marko Vujicic, Ph.D., HPI chief economist and vice president. “The recovery, for now, has been almost as steep.”

The turning tide is occurring alongside municipalities around the nation reopening some segments of society and the economy. According to HPI reporting, “In the 27 states that have been open for elective care at least 5 weeks, patient volume continues to rise. The week of June 1 patient volume reached 64% of pre-COVID-19 levels.” Also, as of June 1, 90% of dental offices were open and patient volume had vastly improved. “The week of June 1 saw 77% of dental practices rehiring back their staff and patient volume rebounded to 53% of pre-COVID-19 levels,” Dr. Vujicic said. At least in the near term, the darkest patch of setbacks may have come to a head as indications abound that consumers are more optimistic about returning for dental care than they are for other temporarily forestalled activities. “In terms of longer-term implications, the consumer polling data I have seen suggests the public at large is comfortable returning to the dentist,” Dr. Vujicic said. “In fact, going back to the dentist is near the top of the list of things people want to get back to.” 

According to survey results (included in the HPI report) from True Global Intelligence, the in-house research practice at communications consultancy FleishmanHillard, 56% of consumer respondents indicated “go to the dentist,” when asked “which of the following are you planning to do in the next 12 months?” It was the top result over “get an eye exam (47%)” “get a physical (45%),” “get treatment for a current medical condition (30%),” and other responses.

Unsurprisingly, some dental patients still could be facing unanticipated financial hardships and challenges from pandemic-sparked job losses and other related economic setbacks. This could lead to them delaying not just elective care but basic dental care. Dentists seeking options on how to offset these challenges for patients may want to consider creative strategies, including referral to outside financing (see Financing could provide double-win over pandemic financial strain).

For the full HPI report and other data on COVID-19’s impact on dentistry, visit ADA.org/HPI.

About the author

Jean Williams headshotMs. Williams is a Chicago-based freelance writer and editor who specializes in practice and research news for dental and medical professionals.