Emergency department visits for dental conditions take a bite out of everyone’s wallet

Study suggests policymakers and health care providers should make dental care more accessible for uninsured
October 14, 2020

Regular visits to the dentist are essential for maintaining your oral health and catching dental diseases early. However, major obstacles such as cost and lack of dental insurance coverage can get in the way of getting your teeth examined.

“It’s well known that in the absence of dental insurance coverage, a visit to the dentist can be costly,” said Marvellous A. Akinlotan, PhD, MPH, BDS, a recent graduate of the Texas A&M University School of Public Health. “Dental diseases such as tooth decay and gum disease are preventable through adequate personal oral hygiene practices and periodic professional care. However, these diseases, if left untreated, do not resolve spontaneously. They progress over time, resulting in dental pain and infection, and may necessitate an emergency department visit.”

Emergency department visits for preventable dental conditions are rising annually and constitute 1.15 to 2.5 percent of all emergency department visits. Although these numbers may seem small, treating these preventable dental conditions in the emergency room costs tax-payers, hospitals and the government about two billion dollars each year.

Additionally, patients who come to the emergency department for dental conditions often get treated with quick fixes, such as antibiotics and pain medications.

“These kind of treatments often do not address the patient’s underlying dental condition, and are an inefficient use of time and health care resources,” Akinlotan said.

As part of her dissertation, Akinlotan and her advisor, Alva O. Ferdinand, DrPH, JD, reviewed more than 60 published studies to summarize factors associated with emergency department visits for preventable dental conditions. Published in the Journal of Public Health Dentistry, the study’s results suggest that policymakers and health care providers should make dental care accessible for the uninsured, and provide comprehensive dental coverage for those with public dental benefits, particularly Medicaid.

The findings also highlight populations that are most likely to visit the emergency department for preventative dental conditions, including young adults, children with special needs, and those that have low socioeconomic status and chronic health conditions.

“Any interventions to increase access to preventive dental care should be targeted to these populations,” Akinlotan said.

Although Akinlotan wasn’t particularly surprised by the results of the study, her research did shine light on knowledge gaps that call for future research. For instance, she is interested in investigating whether providing dental care at Federally Qualified Health Centers influences emergency department visits for preventable dental conditions.

Akinlotan’s study provides more evidence for policymakers and health care providers to invest in increasing access to preventive dental health care, especially for populations most vulnerable to dental emergencies.

-by Callie Rainosek

— Rae Lynn Mitchell

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