Dentistry's recovery from COVID-19 may have hit its ceiling

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Dental patient volume at offices in the U.S. is hovering at an estimated 71% of prepandemic levels, likely indicating that the industry has come close to the end of its recovery, according to new data released on July 21 by the ADA's Health Policy Institute (HPI).

Though patient volumes have grown leaps and bounds from the first week of April when practices were operating at about 7% of pre-COVID-19 levels, the recovery has come to what appears to be a halt. The country's patient volume was at 70% during the week of June 29, and it was at 65% in the two weeks prior, according to responses from 4,388 dentists.

"The data suggests the dental care rebound is tapering off and we are reaching, if not already in, the 'new normal,' " said Marko Vujicic, PhD, chief economist and vice president of HPI, referring to data from the week of July 13.

For weeks, HPI has predicted that the industry likely won't make a full recovery in 2020. If patient volumes can pick up to about 80% of prepandemic levels, dental spending will plummet about $56 billion. High unemployment numbers and the escalating number of COVID-19 cases leave many watching and waiting for the next challenge.

No link between virus and visits

Despite this leveling off, HPI found no correlation between patient volume and COVID-19 infection rates, including in Texas, Florida, and California, states which are being pummeled with new cases and deaths daily. County-level information that reflected the number of new COVID-19 cases during the week of July 13 was merged with HPI's patient volume results to get the data.

"There does not appear to be any appreciable decline in patient volume," he said. "Broader analysis indicates little correlation, in general, between patient volume and the number of new COVID-19 cases among the population [in those states]."

The consumer sentiment is there

Approximately 72% of patients recently have seen their dentist or are ready to make visits, according to new consumer polling data that HPI performed with the consumer research firm Engagious.

Only 14% said they would need a medical breakthrough, such as a vaccine, before they would return to the dentist. Another 14% of patients reported that they would resume dental visits if they received assurances that it was safe to do so from their local and national medical authorities, officials, or dentists, according to the data.

A slightly larger number of patients reported they were uncomfortable getting back in the dental chair if they found out someone contracted COVID-19 from one of their local dental practices, even if they weren't patients there. After learning this, 24% would feel uncomfortable returning until a vaccine was developed or there was some other type of medical breakthrough, the results showed.

However, 15% said a local case would in no way impede them from visiting their dentists. In addition, 36% reported they would still go to the dentist if they were assured that offices were following all recommended infection control measures, and 25% said they would do the same if they received assurances from government officials and medical authorities.

It's not over

With consumer sentiment on its side, dentistry may have a chance to recover a bit more.

"Patient volume in dental offices likely has an upper bound of around 85% of pre-COVID-19 levels, at least for now," Vujicic said.

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