Dentistry shows signs of recovery from COVID-19

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A whopping 65% of dental practices had reopened as of May 18 and patient volumes have risen, indicating that the industry is recovering from shutdowns due to COVID-19, according to new data from the ADA Health Policy Institute (HPI).

Practices that had just reopened reported that patient volumes returned to 38% of prepandemic levels. Patient rebound was 54% of what dentists saw before COVID-19 at those practices in the 27 states that have been reopened for all treatments or most treatments with some restrictions for three full weeks, according to poll data released on May 26 from about 6,500 dentists in private practice.

"This is a more robust rebound than predicted," said Marko Vujicic, PhD, chief economist and vice president of HPI.

Moving ahead

Stay-at-home orders enacted by states across the U.S. placed the dental industry on pause for most care except for emergency treatments. The eight to 10 weeks of restrictions, depending on where practices were located, had dentistry on a collision course with potential peril. Data showed that 46% of dentists said their practices wouldn't survive if they were forced to postpone all nonemergency treatments through the end of the summer. Dental spending was projected to be slashed by about a third from $150 billion to $52 billion.

The latest polls, however, show the tide may be turning.

Staff members were fully paid by 58% of dental practices, which is a sharp spike from the 11% fully paid during the week of April 6, when many practices were only open for emergency treatments, according to HPI.

"Procedure restrictions matter," Vujicic said. "Rehiring has been most robust in states where all procedures are allowed."

Though this is a rosier outcome than projected, the sector continues to face many challenges. Some practices remain closed due to a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) or short supplies, and many employee dentists remain unemployed three weeks after about half the states in the U.S. could reopen for all treatments or most treatments with some restrictions.

Although employed dentists have not been hired back at the same pace as dental hygienists, assistants, and other team members, the numbers have doubled since May 4. About 30% of employed dentists reported being paid fully, according to the poll.

They may not have been hired back based on the types of procedures practices were performing, Vujicic surmised. HPI has not collected any data on the specific treatments that practices are providing.

"With new restrictions, dental hygienists and assistants may be needed, not dentists," he said.

During the week of May 18, 40 states were permitted to reopen for elective services, including 21 that could reopen with no restrictions other than additional PPE.

Though restrictions were lifted, some practices opted to stay closed for elective care.

Owner dentists who chose not to fully reopen practices for elective care reported that they based their decisions on state recommendations and a lack of PPE. About 60% didn't fully reopen due to their states not recommending resuming elective care. About 50% didn't have adequate supplies of PPE, the poll showed.

The future

Vujicic believes June's polling results may be the most telling.

Dentistry will be on a strong path to recovery if close to 70% of practices are reopened by early June. If the numbers are "57%, 58%, we are in a holding pattern," he said.

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