In a previous article, we looked at the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the provision of dental and oral care.
With many providers bearing the brunt of declining patient numbers and the increased costs associated with infection control, we asserted that the time needed for dental services to recover from the impact of COVID-19 would be significant.
Our article also highlighted the effects of rising inequality between the least and most deprived members of society, resulting in certain sections of the population that are either unable or unwilling to access oral health services.
Nine months on, we are reassessing the true extent of COVID-19 on the dental industry.
We divided our analysis into four areas:
Patients have arguably been hit hardest by the pandemic; from being unable to access care and having to find new ways to get support to paying PPE surcharges.
The long-term effects of COVID-19 on dental patients are both positive and negative.
- Patients who may have been reluctant to visit the dentist before the pandemic may now feel grateful for the chance to receive care again. This could lead to a change in mindset that results in those patients becoming more proactive when it comes to their dental care.
- People are adopting new ways of receiving treatment for other medical conditions. These include accessing electronic services such as telehealth. In doing so, they have crossed the digital threshold, which is often considered a barrier in the dental industry.
- Some patients will continue to forgo treatment as practices deal with a significant backlog created by the pandemic.
- The cost of treatment and the impact of COVID-19 on society in general could further exacerbate social inequalities, adding to the rising tide of unmet needs for dental care.
The key to retaining patients in the post-pandemic world will be through long-term access to convenient and affordable dental care.
While regulations around PPE and other infection control mechanisms remain in place, dentists are having to meet the rising costs of equipment and supplies. In addition, the deep cleaning required after most procedures is resulting in a decrease in patient footfall across many dental practices. The pandemic has therefore led to a dual cost impact on dentists: on one hand through increased costs and on the other through decreased revenue.
But the COVID-19 pandemic has also introduced the dental industry to new technologies and methods of practicing. The provision of tele-dentistry is set to change the way dental care is delivered.
3. Health insurance providers
For health insurance providers, the impact of COVID-19 has largely resulted in a rethink of their strategies when it comes to how they serve their customers. To help improve access to care, insurance providers, along with governments, will be tasked with advancing the shift from traditional to enhanced (predominantly digital) care pathways.
Health insurance providers are also responsible for making sure patients remain protected when new pandemics or unforeseen events occur. As such, they have a duty to reduce the financial burden on customers accessing dental care.
Focusing on access and affordability by delivering solutions that help to improve the customer’s life in the post-pandemic world will be a key milestone for health insurance providers.
Recognising the role of governments remains fundamental to establishing and upholding national standards for care. While there were no textbooks on how to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak, the pandemic has shone a light on the dental industry's most fragile elements.
It will be the role of governments to set the standards, regulations and policies that strengthen and align healthcare provision in the future. This can be achieved through a number of measures, including:
- Reforms to dental contracts within the NHS.
- Reorganisation of the available structures (NHS or private) to reduce wait times and improve access and affordability.
A key determinant for governments if they wish to continue to play an active role in the dental industry will be in the placement of preventive oral health at the forefront of their provision. This will mean transitioning from the current reactive model of oral health to a proactive one.