What can dentists expect as the COVID-19 pandemic continues?

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As COVID-19 surges throughout the U.S., dentists may face rocky times in terms of expenses and patient volumes over the next few months, according to recent data from the ADA's Health Policy Institute (HPI).

Patient volumes tapered off and began slipping a little in August, and they plateaued at about 76% of pre-COVID-19 levels in November. Data that included responses from about 3,000 dentists show they likely won't see patient volume grow in the coming months. That situation, coupled with dentists spending significantly more on personal protective equipment (PPE) than they did prior to the pandemic, points to challenges with the bottom line.

"Prices for PPE are up significantly," said Chelsea Fosse, a senior health policy analyst at HPI, during a webinar released on December 18.

"On average, across all categories of PPE, nearly one-third of dentists reported that prices have at least tripled since the onset of the pandemic," she said.

Prices have risen most dramatically for surgical masks and gloves, Fosse noted.

Approximately 24% reported that the cost of gloves has doubled, and another 20% noted the cost has tripled. About 9% reported paying roughly five time as much or more for gloves. In addition to price, dentists have had issues with supply. Approximately 79% of dentists reported having moderate to extreme difficulty in obtaining gloves in preferred sizes and materials, according to the data.

Meanwhile, approximately 17% of dentists reported that the cost of surgical masks has either quadrupled or increased by at least fivefold. Another 45% or so said the price of masks has either doubled or tripled, Fosse said.

Buying wherever

Due to supply and pricing issues, more dentists also have been relying on a variety of PPE distributors, including Amazon and smaller distributors, since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, half of dentists relied on a single PPE distributor; now, nearly three-quarters are using at least two different distributors.

About 57% of dentists used Henry Schein as their PPE distributor prior to the pandemic, and that number has increased to about 64% since the onset of COVID-19. Many also used Patterson and Benco, but more clinicians have also turned to Amazon and other distributors. Prepandemic, about 10% used Amazon to buy PPE; that figure rose to about 32% during the pandemic. Approximately 42% bought from smaller distributors, including Safco Dental Supply and TDSC, before the pandemic. That number rose to about 62% following COVID-19, according to the responses.

"There is more price shopping and more dentists on relying on diversification in the supply chain," Fosse said.

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