Dentistry's recovery from COVID-19 is closer than ever

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Patient volume has reached 86% of pre-COVID-19 levels, the highest it has been since dental practices were closed for all nonemergency procedures in March 2020, according to data released on April 28 by the ADA Health Policy Institute (HPI).

Dentistry bounced back quickly in the spring of 2020 when states began giving dentists the green light to reopen for all procedures. But by January 2021, patient volume had stalled at 80% of pre-COVID-19 levels. HPI analysts predicted it would likely remain there for the next several months, preventing dentistry from making a full recovery.

It appears that dentistry's full recovery is within reach now that patient volume has ticked up, employment at dental practices has fully recovered, and dentists are less inclined to raise fees than they were in early 2021. The recovery may be because dentists took advantage of U.S. government relief funding programs.

How dollars were spent

Of the 1,838 owner dentists who responded to the poll, about 92% applied and received money during the first round of the Small Business Administration Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). Less than 2% applied but did not receive funding. Approximately 65% applied and received money during the second round of PPP funding, and about 4% applied but did not receive any money, according to HPI.

Meanwhile, 40% applied and received aid under the second phase of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act Provider Relief Fund, which was distributed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Another 5% applied but did not get funding.

For the third phase of CARES Act funding, 18% of dentists applied for and received money. However, approximately 6% of owner dentists applied but did not get funding, HPI found.

Of the 1,741 owner dentists who reported obtaining relief funds, approximately 98% of them used the money to retain staff. Funds were also used for mortgage, rent, insurance, or utility payments; supplies, including personal protective equipment or facility enhancements; and technology investments.

About 1% of respondents reported using relief funds for other reasons, including hiring new staff, paying general expenses, and eliminating credit card debt.

Those who passed on funding

Approximately 60 owner dentists said they did not apply for relief funds. Approximately 30% of these dentists said they opted not to apply for funding because they were concerned about government oversight. About 10% of dentists reported they were unaware of the programs, and others said they thought the application process was too complicated or they did not qualify.

About one-third of the respondents said they did not seek assistance for "other" reasons -- most often, that they did not need assistance. Other responses included choosing to retire, selling a practice, and having concerns about repaying the debt, according to HPI.

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