That bites! Dental patients in ERs on the rise

New research confirms what many providers have feared: More Americans are going to the emergency department for routine dental problems, such as toothaches.

The Pew Center in its report yesterday found that ED visits for dental problems jumped 16 percent from 2006 to 2009. The increase in ED visits could mean drains on the health system, not to mention higher costs, as an emergency visit costs 10 times more than preventive care and offers far fewer treatment options than a dentist's office.

For example, a routine teeth cleaning costs $50 to $100, versus $1,000 for emergency room treatment that may include painkillers for aching cavities and antibiotics for infections, according to a USA Today article.

"Emergency rooms are really the canary in the coal mine. If people are showing up in the ER for dental care, then we've got big holes in the delivery of care," said Shelly Gehshan, director of Pew's children's dental campaign, in the article. "It's just like pouring money down a hole."

Those dental patients are likely to end up back in the hospital because EDs are not often staffed with dentists and because those patients are not likely able to afford follow-up dental care.

Contrary to the triple aim, "It's the wrong service, in the wrong setting, at the wrong time," Gehshan said.

North Carolina, for example, saw more than 69,000 trips to EDs in 2009 due to teeth or jaw disorders, according to a Pew announcement yesterday. Florida had more than 115,000 dental-related ED cases in 2010, amounting to a whopping $88 million.

"The bad news is that states are paying a hefty price at a time when they can least afford it," Gehshan said in the Pew statement. "The good news is they can make modest investments now that will improve access to care and save them money down the road."

To learn more:
- read the USA Today article
- here's the press release
- check out the study (.pdf)