In the time since the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic entered the United States, the future of the dental industry been on relatively shaky footing, though there may be light at the end of the tunnel.

Patient volumes are declining

Less than 2% of practices are still closed due to the pandemic, according to the American Dental Association (ADA)’s COVID-19: Economic Impact on Dental Practices, Week of December 19. However, only 39% of practices are fully open with the volume of patients they had before the pandemic. Practices initially experienced gradual growth in the percentage of patients they were seeing compared to 2019. Even so, the number of practices operating with the same volume of patients has declined since August, with patient volumes slipping several times throughout 2020.

Due to cancellations during the second and third quarters, many practices saw holes in their schedules during the fourth quarter of 2020 and the first quarter of 2021. Usually a practice would have 80% or more of their schedule filled. This year is much different, with the average schedule only 50% full. This dip occurred in part because some appointments in the first half of 2020 were cancelled due to the pandemic and then the appointments were not immediately rescheduled.

Dental care spending has dipped

The dip in patient volume is also a contributor to a projected dip in yearly dental spending. The ADA’s Health Policy Institute predicted in their June 2020 industry model that dental care spending would dip by up to 38% in 2020 and 20% in 2021. Their models didn’t take into account a second or third wave of COVID-19.

Loss of coverage may contribute to decline

Almost 7.7 million workers with employer sponsored insurance (ESI) have lost their coverage due to COVID-19. An additional 6.9 million dependents have lost their insurance coverage due to their family members losing their jobs. The strong link between employment and health insurance coverage has important implications for Americans’ insurance coverage and access to health care, as ESI is the most common form of health insurance in the United States.

Positive changes are coming

There is good news, according to a survey by the Delta Dental Institute, which indicated that nearly three in every four patients believe that routine dental appointments are still important during the pandemic. Most respondents said they were worried about the long-term side effects of missing appointments. The results of this survey may suggest that patients will continue to return to dentists.

What’s more, the estimated rate of COVID-19 cases among dentists is less than 1%, according to a November 2020 study in JADA. This suggests that the current infection control measures seem to be working to prevent infection in dental settings, despite dentistry being flagged as a high-risk profession for COVID-19 infection. With the first waves of widespread vaccinations now underway, the bright light at the end of the tunnel is getting closer. Millions of doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been administered and more are on the way. While we may need to redefine what “normal” means, there’s a possibility that the end of 2021 may see a world in which patient volumes return to a higher percentage of their pre-2020 numbers. With potential for dentists to administer the COVID-19 vaccine and a huge push to get enough people vaccinated for the United States to reach herd immunity, the future is looking bright for dentists who want patients back in their chairs.