The early days of the pandemic brought a tidal wave of changes to the dental industry. Doubtless you felt the impact on your practice’s day-to-day operations. Here’s a high-level view of the way COVID-19 impacted patients, dentists and the dental insurance industry based on claims data, patient surveys and expert opinion.

The rise of teledentistry

During the early stages of the pandemic in the United States, dental offices were closed for weeks. This led to a massive surge in the popularity of teledentistry services.

Synchronous appointments (those with live phone or video interaction between dentists and their patients) saw a 3,000% increase between 2019 and 2020, according to Delta Dental claims during that period. Asynchronous appointments (where patients took photos or videos that were sent to a dentist for later review) saw a 1,000% increase in the same time period.

The use of teledentistry has declined as the pandemic has worn on and dentist offices have reopened, but 2021’s synchronous and asynchronous appointment numbers still remain six times and two times higher than 2019 levels, respectively.

More states also updated their teledentistry laws during the pandemic. Based on Delta Dental’s internal tracking, fourteen states added teledentistry regulations to their laws or expanded existing regulations, including states like Texas, which had previously not allowed the practice of teledentistry at all.

Most importantly, in a phone survey of teledentistry patients during the pandemic, patients expressed widespread satisfaction with their options. This aligns with pre-pandemic expectations that patients had about teledentistry. Of those surveyed before the pandemic, 78% expected to use teledentistry within the next five years, and that working people, children and people with disabilities would benefit the most from teledentistry.

Dentists also had praise for teledentistry, with over 80% of dentists nationwide identifying it as useful for improving access to oral care, increasing specialists’ access to rural and underserved communities and as a time-saving technique. Virtual visits may not replace in-person checkups, but they remain a valuable tool in your arsenal.

Mitigating the costs of COVID

The beginning of the pandemic was marked by profound economic uncertainty as dental practices closed and patients sheltered in place. General practitioner income dropped nearly 18% in 2020 compared to 2019.

Fortunately, Delta Dental was able to assist with loans, reimbursements for personal protective equipment (PPE) costs and free teledentistry tools that allowed dentists to see patients remotely.

Loans offered in partnership with Provide (formerly Lendeavor) allowed dentists to make practice acquisitions, expand to new locations, purchase commercial real estate and equipment, build out their practices and refinance existing practice and commercial real estate debt. These loans featured favorable terms and conditions, like covered interest for up to 24 months, deferred payments for six months, repayment terms of 10+ years and working capital of up to $200,000.

Delta Dental also offered a supplemental reimbursement for qualifying evaluations and consultations during the second half of 2020. This Return to Care reimbursement led to an additional $80 million for dentists last year to help offset the costs of PPE and enhanced office sterilization.

As another way of helping dentists deal practice safety, two teledentistry options were rolled out: Delta Dental – Virtual Consult and Toothpic.

  • Virtual Consult is a synchronous service where members can use a smart device to have a live video chat with a Delta Dental dentist.
  • Toothpic is an asynchronous service that allows members to take photos of problem areas and get an assessment from a Delta Dental dentist within 24 hours.

As a network dentist, you can join for free to grow your patient base and to assist patients who may have difficulty making it to in-person visits.

How patients used their benefits

The early stages of the pandemic saw a sharp decline in the number of patients going to the dentist’s office. One of the main reasons for the decline was that the sharp economic shutdown led to over 20 million Americans losing their jobs and their dental coverage as well.

This decline in visits to the dentist office had a profound effect on patients’ oral health. In 2019, the most common procedures according to Delta Dental claims data were either diagnostic and preventive care or evaluations for specific issues. This shifted in 2020, when the most common procedures included fillings and root planing, which help address the effects of dental neglect.

In addition to economic hardships, COVID also increased mental and emotional strain. Since the pandemic began, the number of adults reporting symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorders has risen from about 10% in 2019 to over 40% in 2021.

These symptoms can manifest in jaw clenching and teeth grinding. Based on Delta Dental claims data, the number of patients requiring occlusal guards to prevent damage from bruxism rose nearly 10% in the second half of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.

Anxiety and depression can also worsen an unhealthy diet or substance abuse, which can lead to oral health issues such as cavities. This may also help to explain the surge in fillings and scaling and root planing procedures in 2020.

Health and safety in the dental office

Even though COVID-19 is spread by exhaled aerosolized droplets, visits to the dentist’s office proved safer than visiting any other medical professional during the pandemic. 

Nearly 100% of dentist offices rapidly adopted enhanced infection control measures like pre-appointment screenings, in-office air purification and antiviral mouthwashes. 

Once available, vaccines saw widespread adoption among dentists, even before state and federal mandates. By fall 2021, over 94% of dentists had received at least one vaccination shot for COVID-19.

Patients also view dentists as valuable sources of information about their overall health in addition to their oral health. Two-thirds of dentists reported receiving questions from patients about the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the American Dental Association. 

Dentists rose to the occasion, with over 80% reported feeling prepared for these discussions and 95% who said it was important to have such discussions with patients.

What did we learn from COVID-19?

Here are three key takeaways for you and your practice as you look to the future.

  • Develop contingency and resiliency plans for your practice. Even if we don’t see another global pandemic within our lifetimes, disruptions from natural disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes and wildfires remain a possibility. Discussing emergency plans with staff ahead of time can help everyone to feel more secure and prepared when crises arise. Be sure to follow the news, Delta Dental and professional organizations to learn what resources are available to help your practice mitigate the costs of disasters.
  • The right tools and technology can mean the difference between staying open and having to close. Patients will come to your office if they feel safe doing so, but the right resources can empower your more hesitant patients. Invest in effective and visible infection control measures to let patients understand that your practice is taking steps to ensure their well-being. For patients who simply don’t feel safe coming into the office, teledentistry can provide you with another way to stay in touch with your patient base — and even grow it.
  • Make the most of your status as a trusted health professional to your patients.  It can be easy for patients to compartmentalize their oral health from their overall well-being. As a health professional, your opinions and advice are especially important for patients who may be getting information from misinformed or unreliable sources like social media. Advising on wellness and current topics, such as the safety and efficacy of vaccines, can go a long way towards building lasting relationships with your patients and your community. Explore ways to foster trust with patients who may have concerns for their safety, come from a different cultural background than you and your staff or may simply benefit from feeling seen and heard.