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COVID-19 & Oral Health

The COVID-19 pandemic has created new and unique challenges for all of us — and the oral health industry is no exception. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will reverberate for years, and many changes in the industry — increased adoption of teledentistry and the move toward value-based care (VBC), for example — are likely here to stay. 

COVID-19 Illustration

A New Normal for Dentistry

The pandemic had a profound effect on oral health care. Dental providers, given the nature of their work, are among the professions at the greatest risk of contracting the virus. Meanwhile, an estimated 6 million American adults lost their dental insurance because of a job loss or benefits change that was caused by the pandemic. Many delayed getting care due to that lack of insurance or the fear of exposure to the virus.

Everything from infection control protocols to payment models to the long-term outlook for the industry has shifted. The good news is that many of these changes will increase the industry’s resilience, equipping it to provide better care both in normal times and times of crisis. 

How the Industry Responded to the Pandemic

Dental Providers Pivoted

Dental providers quickly pivoted when the pandemic struck, and they found many of the changes had value independent of the pandemic. A CareQuest Institute survey of more than 4,000 providers found that 93% of providers said they anticipated long-term changes in dentistry
Female dental providers examining a male patient
Female dental providers examining a male patient

Adoption of Teledentistry

One of the most significant changes was the wider adoption of teledentistry. The disruptions caused by COVID-19 significantly reduced patient visits and, as a result, appear to be accelerating a shift to telehealth for at least some oral health services.

Vaccine Distribution

Dental providers have also offered a key access point for delivering the vaccine, especially to those who might not have other contact with health care. In a survey conducted in March of 2021, 49% of dental providers said they were either offering the COVID-19 vaccine to patients or were interested in doing so.

Provider and Patient Resilience

The oral health industry showed remarkable resilience during the pandemic. Surveys found that dental providers were adapting to the new conditions by implementing new infection prevention protocols and offering more telehealth services. To help, CareQuest Institute partnered with the Organization for Safety Asepsis and Prevention (OSAP), dentistry’s global resource for infection control and safety information, to produce a suite of practical provider and patient resources.

Forward-thinking learning communities, such as CareQuest Institute’s Community Oral Health Transformation (COrHT) Initiative, allowed providers and organizations to collaborate on ideas, techniques, and best practices that will improve the oral health system. 

oral health providers wearing PPE

71 percent of providers of color report reductions in patient volumes

Uneven Effects of the Pandemic

Even before the pandemic, people of color experienced lower rates of health insurance coverage, increased barriers to care, and worse health outcomes, and all of those factors were exacerbated by the pandemic. The effects have been uneven for providers, too. In one survey, 71% of oral health providers of color reported significant reductions in patient volumes since the COVID-19 pandemic began, compared to 57% of white providers.

The Path Ahead for Oral Health

A possible silver lining to the pandemic is that some of the changes implemented will move the industry forward. 

Improved infection control will benefit everyone even after the pandemic ends. Teledentistry has shown that it offers many benefits — for patients, providers, and the overall health system. The pandemic also accelerated the shift toward value-based care, which can provide more financial stability for oral health providers and lead to better oral health for patients.

Provider in protective equipment cleaning medical device