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Emergency room dental visits on the rise in many states

Feb 29, 2012

Emergency rooms are crowded with people seeking preventable dental treatment and that trend is likely to continue, according to a recent report.

The Pew Center on the States looked at hospital data from 24 states and found that emergency room (ER) visits for dental problems increased 16 percent from 2006 to 2009.  In South Carolina, for example, ER visits for dental reasons increased as much as 60 percent in 2009.  In 2010 Florida paid more than $88 million for 115,000 people to visit ER’s for dental treatment.

Analysts attribute much of the increase to a rise in people on Medicaid and a shortage of dentists, particularly those that treat Medicaid patients. For example, in Florida only about ten percent of the dentists participate in the state Medicaid program. In 2009 alone 56 percent of Medicaid-enrolled children received no dental care.

In 2010, Oregon dental visits by Medicaid patients jumped 31 percent from 2008. Florida saw an increase of 40 percent in Medicaid patients seeking ER treatment for oral issues from 2008 to 2010.  

This trend is particularly disturbing for state Medicaid budgets because the emergency rooms are ten times more expensive and offer far fewer treatment options. All that an ER staff can generally offer visitors seeking dental treatment are pain relief and treatment for infected gums. Analysts believe many of those returning to the ER a second time or more do so because they cannot afford or find follow-up treatment.

Another factor contributing to the misuse of ER rooms for dental needs involve the same patients returning for additional treatment.  For example, in Minnesota nearly 20 percent of all dental-related ER visits are return visits.

“It’s like pouring money down a hole,” says Shelly Gehshan, director of Pew's children's dental campaign. "It's the wrong service, in the wrong setting, at the wrong time." 

A shortage of dentists generally, especially in rural areas, also contribute to the problem.

Gehshan said the Pew Center is working with states to develop training for dental hygienists and other non-dentists in treating cavities and other less complicated procedures. Other potential steps include increasing water fluoridation and use of dental sealants.

Sources: Associated Press, USA Today, ABC News


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