The Impact of COVID-19 on the Oral Health Crisis
The importance of all facets of our health care system to the stability of our society and the well-being of all Americans cannot be overstated during this pandemic. Our country’s – and the world’s – response to COVID-19 (aka Coronavirus) will depend in large part on the ability of medical professionals and facilities not only to treat those who have already been infected, but also to confront the many more cases that are likely to come. At the same time, our health care system must continue to deliver both acute and chronic care services to our country.
The ongoing debate about how our health care system should and can be structured to deliver comprehensive care that is inclusive of all parts of the body is an important topic. As we face COVID-19, it becomes an urgent one.
CQ Roll Call recently held its fourth annual #HealthcareDecoded event in Washington, D.C., to preview health care policy in 2020 and to discuss a few of the most pressing issues Congress will face over the next 10 months. DentaQuest was a sponsor of the program, along with the Better Medicare Alliance and the Alzheimer’s Association.
Coronavirus was a central part of the conversation – my fellow industry experts discussed solutions to improve access to care in light of this public health crisis. Congresswoman Donna Shalala (D-FL) noted that this global pandemic has placed our nation’s health care system in sharp focus, revealing the gaps in the system and demonstrating the need to improve public health infrastructure and accessibility.
From the perspective of oral health, I see great opportunity to relieve emergency departments (EDs) nationwide from avoidable admissions, ensuring those most in need have access to scarce resources. In my time at the DentaQuest Partnership for Oral Health Advancement, I have learned that the volume of oral health-associated avoidable ED encounters draws a significant amount of resources away from other urgent treatment.
For a growing number of Americans, EDs have become the first line of treatment for dental care. Every 14 seconds nationwide, adults visit an ED for a dental condition and 70% of these visits happen outside normal business hours. These (often unnecessary) visits cost the U.S. health care system approximately $2.4 billion annually. I would now add that in our current context of mandated closure of dental clinics for routine care, the number of patients seeking care for oral health issues will continue to climb.
The emergency room is a less-than-ideal place for dental care, in part because treatment most often focuses on pain management rather than addressing underlying oral health issues. What’s more, DentaQuest Partnership-supported research shows patients receiving oral health care in an ED were nearly 5 times more likely to receive an opioid prescription than those treated in a dental office.
I am passionate about the importance of improving access to oral health care, as oral health is critical to overall health. Not many people realize that 90% of all systemic diseases have oral manifestations, including chronic diseases like diabetes, heart and kidney disease. This underscores the magnitude of the oral health crisis that is now amplified by the impact of COVID-19.
Access to oral health providers and to the prevention and treatment of oral health disorders must be part of how we develop and refine our health care system in these challenging times. Prevention and treatment of oral health disorders will have an impact on decreasing ED utilization for oral health disorders as well as associated chronic diseases. We must think about the whole person and their comprehensive health care needs as we triage patients nationwide to help ensure the most efficient management of our limited supplies and human resources.
Like Congresswoman Shalala pointed out, these difficult times illustrate just how critical it is for us to drive improvements that close gaps, both during a pandemic and beyond. The DentaQuest Partnership has been and will continue studying and piloting programs to help more patients access the most appropriate care in the most appropriate setting for their needs.
Many of our oral health centers remain open for urgent and emergency care. We are setting up phone banks to help direct care and assembling a team of experts to move forward with novel approaches to teledentistry. We are also assembling resources to support the communities we serve and working to help grantees of the DentaQuest Partnership continue their important work.
In closing, I send a special thanks to those health care workers who are on the front lines and ensuring our patients have access to the care they need and deserve. Please join me in thanking the health care providers and other essential civil servants in your life!