For Many, the Answer Is Not the Dentist’s Chair (Spring 2012 Trust Magazine Briefly Noted)

Source Organization: Pew Center on the States

Author: Tim Warren

05/25/2012 - You have a toothache, you see a dentist—right?

For many Americans, however, the answer is a trip to the emergency room. These visits are fueled by the nation’s shortage of dentists and the difficulty many low-income children face finding one who accepts Medicaid.  Dental problems, therefore, are being treated in ERs, even though they often can only deal with infections or offer pain relief.

In North Carolina, more than 69,000 trips to the emergency room in 2009 were made to treat tooth or jaw disorders. Florida reported more than 115,000 dental-related emergency room visits in 2010.

Other states report similar statistics “and it’s such a colossal waste of money,” said Shelly Gehshan, director of the Children’s Dental Campaign of the Pew Center on the States. “This is the wrong service in the wrong setting at the wrong time for people who have no other options—exactly the opposite of what medical treatment should be.

“When you seek medical care, you generally have a ton of choices. With dental care, you have two: a dentist’s office or a community health center, but only two-thirds of them offer dental services. That’s why so many people end up going to the emergency room.”

The campaign analyzed the trend in A Costly Dental Destination, which reported that “preventable dental conditions were the primary diagnosis in 830,590 visits to ERs nationwide in 2009—a 16 percent increase from 2006.” 

Expanding the dental workforce is one of the study’s key recommendations; it urges that jurisdictions consider new types of practitioners, such as dental therapists, who can perform many of the tasks dentists traditionally do. It also urges expanding prevention efforts, such as fluoridation of water supplies and making sealants available to more children.


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