Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Climbing Trend of Dental-Related ER Visits – Especially Among Young Adults

By Dr. John Luther, DentaQuest Chief Dental Officer

A record number of people are heading to hospital emergency rooms (ERs) when they have an urgent dental need, straining the nation’s health care system and increasing health care costs.

While ERs are equipped to provide pain relief and treat dental infection, few hospitals have dentists available to provide definitive dental care. Most of the time, ER staff are only able to provide a temporary fix, providing patients with prescriptions for pain or antibiotics for infection without diagnosing or resolving the underlying dental issue. This leaves the individual vulnerable to returning to the ER with the same problem or perhaps a more severe problem, which ultimately becomes more costly and painful to treat.

This month, the American Dental Association Health Policy Resources Center (HPRC) released findings which conclude that the number of dental-related ER visits in the United States jumped from 1.1 million in 2000 to 2.1 million in 2010.

According to HPRC’s research, dental ER visits cost the health care system up to $2 billion annually. HPRC found that the increase in cost is primarily driven by young adults, aged 21 to 34 years old, with inadequate dental coverage. During the last decade, decreases in private dental insurance combined with major reductions in adult dental Medicaid coverage have caused young adult dental-related ER visits to skyrocket from 1.5 percent to 3 percent--higher than any other age group.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA), as the HPRC points out, lacks the power to address this rising trend because it does not mandate dental benefits for adults. And, adult dental benefits are not be included in the essential benefit packages that insurance plans will sell through states’ exchanges under the law.

HPRC is calling on policy makers to look at other ways to improve access to dental care for adults, including innovative programs aimed at diverting dental patients from the ERs to community health centers (CHCs) or private dental practices, where they can receive preventive, continuous dental care.

Driven by our mission to improve the oral health of all, DentaQuest supports this approach. We believe that access to prevention-focused dental care is a cost-effective, valuable way to keep health care costs down. Our programs, such as the Strengthening the Oral Health Safety Net Initiative, the National Interprofessional Initiative on Oral Health, and Oral Health 2014, invest in national and community-based actions that engage communities across the country to create conditions for optimal oral health through prevention support and access to oral health care.

In the next decade, I am hopeful that our collaboration with policy makers and other key stakeholders will result in the reversal of this climbing negative trend.