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Emergency Room Use and Dental Problems

Aug 12, 2015

By Dean George

Seeing a dentist is problematic for low-income families, and a recent study predicts that it may only get worse in the coming years as more dentists approach retirement. As of January 2013, an estimated 45 million Americans were living in urban and rural areas with dental provider shortages.

The shortage of dentists is stressing hospital emergency rooms, or ER’s, as thousands of people use these facilities for minor dental problems like toothaches.


According to the Washington Post, one study found that the number visiting ER’s for minor dental needs rose by 41 percent from 2001 to 2008, compared to just 13 percent for other health conditions during the same period.

A recent study published in Health Affairs looked at ER visits in 29 states and focused specifically on non-traumatic dental care.

Through the study, researchers found that merely expanding Medicaid dental coverage, specifically in urban areas, did not translate into fewer ER visits. Rural counties with more dental providers, however, did see a decrease in ER visits for dental needs, leading researchers to conclude that a lack of access to dental providers was responsible for the spike in dental-related ER visits in urban areas.

“Just because they have coverage doesn’t mean they have access,” said Maria Raven, a professor at the University of California-San Francisco and author of the study. “If they don’t have access via dentists that accept Medicaid, it doesn’t matter.”

As the study indicated, the rate of public dentists who accept public aid is as low as 20 percent in New York, 15 percent in Florida and 11 percent in Missouri. According to the American Dental Association (ADA), the Affordable Care Act has helped 8.3 million adults gain access to dental care in 2014, but many states still do not include dental care as part of their Medicaid package.

Katie Fingar, lead author of the study and a healthcare research leader at Truven Health Analytics, says there are ways to improve dental services within Medicaid that could reduce dental-related ER visits.

  • Dental clinics could create “dental emergency rooms”
  • Develop less expensive dental coverage options
  • Increase the number of mid-level dental providers that can offer basic dental treatment
  • Petition state government to offer provider incentives to encourage Medicaid users to practice preventive care as they do with colon and cancer screenings.

The idea behind making preventive care more available to low-income families is two-fold: first, to improve the health of those families, and secondly, to help decrease their use of ER’s for minor dental problems.

As previously reported in Dental Wire, the use of ER’s for dental treatment has been on the rise for several years, and alternatives are needed as the current system is not working for millions of low-income adults.

To find affordable dental plans in your area, click here.

Source: washingtonpost.com
Photo source: hospitaldentalgroup.com


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