Dental Treatment in the ER?

According to the Associated Press through an analysis of government data and dental research, more Americans are going to the hospital emergency room for dental problems rather than going to a dentist’s office.   The number of ER visits for dental problems increased 16 percent from 2006 to 2009, and the report by the Pew Center on the States indicates that the trend is continuing.   But emergency treatment in the ER can cost 10 times more than preventive care.  The hospital setting also means fewer treatment options than available in a dental office.  This is because the ER is usually not staffed by dentists.  The hospital staff can only offer pain relief and antibiotics but they cannot offer definitive dental treatment.  Many of these patients cannot afford follow-up treatment in a dental office, so they return to the ER for repeat care when the problem resurfaces.  For example,  in Minnesota, almost 20% of dental ER visits are return visits.

Most emergency visits involve toothaches that could have been avoided with regular checkups.   In Florida there were more than 115,000 ER dental visits in 2010, costing more than $88 million. This figure includes more than 40,000 Medicaid patients, representing a 40% increase from 2008.  But still 56% of Medicaid-enrolled children received no dental care.

The use of an emergency room for dental treatment is very expensive and very inefficient.  The recession has contributed to the situation because when a family member loses a job, dental care takes a back seat to food and rent.  The problem is also exacerbated by the low Medicaid fees for dentists.  Few dentists participate in state Medicaid programs.  A shortage of dentists in rural areas is also a contributing factor.

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