Dentistry's full recovery still months away

By Melissa Busch, DrBicuspid.com associate editor

January 28, 2021 -- Patient volume remains stuck at 80% of pre-COVID-19 levels and likely will stay that way for the next several months, putting the brakes on a complete recovery in dentistry for now, according to data released on January 28 during an ADA Health Policy Institute (HPI) webinar. But most dentists are confident that their dental practices will recover in 2021.

Patient volume recovered to 80% of pre-COVID-19 levels and has hovered around that mark for a few months. There is still growth potential, but it hinges on COVID-19 vaccine rollout, said Marko Vujicic, PhD, HPI's chief economist and vice president.

"Based on this, we don't anticipate full recovery until the summer or fall," he said.

Approximately 99% of practices remain open, and the number operating at "business as usual" levels has started to tick back up: 39% reported being back to business as usual during the week of December 14, and that number climbed to 43% during the week of January 18. Prior to this, that figure had declined each week since hitting a peak of 49% in mid-August, according to HPI results as of the week of January 18. About 3,000 dentists participated in the survey.

Factors at play

Vaccine distribution and availability, dental practices' financial status, and patient sentiment concerning COVID-19 all affect dentistry's recovery.

Currently, 72% of dentists are very or somewhat confident that their dental practices will recover in 2021. Meanwhile, about 15% reported being unconfident or skeptical, approximately 11% are somewhat skeptical, and the remaining 2% are very skeptical, HPI reported.

"Dentists at this stage are cautiously optimistic about the dental care recovery in 2021," said Dr. Chelsea Fosse, MPH, a senior health policy analyst at HPI.

Though many initially projected that the pandemic would lead to retirements and closures, that has not yet been the case. Government assistance has been crucial to practices' survival, with approximately 90% of dentists taking advantage of relief from U.S. government-funded initiatives such as the Paycheck Protection Program, Vujicic said.

The assistance is necessary because the pandemic has led to many dentists spending more to operate practices, with about 40% breaking even or losing money, according to November data. Dentists have taken several actions to maintain the financial sustainability of their practices. Over the past month, nearly a third have raised fees. About 20% took out a bank loan, and another combined 30% switched dental suppliers or reduced dental team hours to meet financial challenges, the new data showed.

Regarding vaccination, dentists are eager to receive the novel coronavirus vaccine; however, other dental team members do not have as much confidence in its safety and efficacy. Only 52% of dentists said their staff is confident in the vaccine's safety and efficacy.

Consumer sentiment

Consumer confidence in returning to the dental office has reached a new high, with 88% of those surveyed reporting they have already returned to the dentist or are ready to go. However, it is unlikely that the remaining 12% will return to the dentist before COVID-19 is under control.

"We're in a holding pattern," Vujicic said. "We do not see it changing dramatically until we have COVID-19 resolved."


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