The US has a dentistry crisis. While public insurance plans are required to provide some amount of dental coverage to children, overall, both children and adults are either uninsured or underinsured, putting dental care financially out of reach.
This presents a serious of problems. First, and most importantly, lack of sufficient dental coverage coupled with the cost of care means that many people live with untreated oral health issues, and second, where dental care is readily available, dentists struggle to grow their practices – and that was before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A High-Risk Undertaking
Since the start of the pandemic, dentists have found themselves in a precarious position. After all, COVID-19 is transmitted via aerosolized droplets, a great volume of which are produced during dental procedures. The good news is that there haven’t been any cases of COVID-19 linked to dental care, but there’s also been a lot less dental care going on.
Advised to stay home and concerned about the risks of dental treatment, people are skipping dentist appointments barring a critical problem, such as an infected tooth or broken crown. This threatens to worsen existing dental care disparities, especially among children who primarily receive preventative treatments, and dentists need to step up and advocate for ongoing care.
One of the first steps to ensuring that families don’t delay pediatric dental care during the course of the pandemic is highlighting the importance of early interventions. Most parents assume that their children have good overall oral health. In reality, though, 42% of children ages 2 through 11 suffer from tooth decay, making it the number one chronic infection among children. Worse yet, because children are notoriously difficult to treat once infections advance, delaying treatment means kids often need to be put under expensive general anesthesia, driving up the price of treatment.
As noted above, there haven’t been any cases of COVID-19 associated with dental treatment, and dentists have taken many steps to ensure that patients are kept safe during appointments. In fact, because of the prominence of aerosols in their practice, dentists had more robust PPE norms than other health professionals, including wearing both masks and face shields during most procedures. These norms have been further enhanced since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Part of making sure that families aren’t skipping critical dental care at this time is to stress your new safety protocols, specifically the ways in which your practice is following CDC guidelines for dental care. These include increased sanitizing of office space, spacing out appointments so patients don’t overlap, discouraging early arrivals or asking patients to check-in from their cars, and provider use of PPE. When families know that you’re doing everything possible to keep them safe, they’re more likely to make their regular appointments.
In addition to tackling all of the norms associated with pandemic safety, pediatric dentists face a special set of challenges – specifically, keeping their young patients safe without frightening or upsetting them. When speaking to client families, then, it’s important to address this issue.
For example, your patients are surely used to seeing people in masks at this point, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be overwhelmed by the combination of dental treatment and layers of PPE. Wearing a child-friendly cloth mask over your N95, ensuring there are safe distractions like overhead video on hand, and explaining how parents may be safely present during appointments can go a long way towards ensuring everyone feels comfortable.
It’s understandable that regular dental checkups may not be a top priority for families right now, but it’s important that they know what they’re missing out on and why it’s important for them to get those appointments back on the calendar. Tooth decay doesn’t slow down for pandemic, and by the time things stabilize, our children could be suffering from serious oral health issues.
Interesting related article: “How to keep your teeth and gums healthy.”