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More dental patients go to emergency room

More Americans are turning to the emergency room for routine dental problems -- a choice that often costs 10 times more than preventive care and offers far fewer treatment options than a dentist's office, according to an analysis of government data and dental research.

Most of those emergency visits involve trouble such as toothaches that could have been avoided with regular checkups but went untreated, in many cases because of a shortage of dentists, particularly those willing to treat Medicaid patients, the analysis said.

The number of ER visits nationwide for dental problems increased 16 percent from 2006 to 2009, and the report released today by the Pew Center on the States suggests the trend is continuing.

In Florida, for example, there were more than 115,000 ER dental visits in 2010, resulting in more than $88 million in charges. That included more than 40,000 Medicaid patients, up 40 percent from 2008.

And in New York, ER or surgery center treatment for tooth decay-related trouble in young children cost more than $31 million in 2008, 32 percent higher than in 2004.

"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. "It's just like pouring money down a hole.

Using emergency rooms for dental treatment "is incredibly expensive and incredibly inefficient," said Dr. Frank Catalanotto, a professor at the University of Florida's College of Dentistry who reviewed the report.

Preventive dental care such as routine teeth cleaning can cost $50 to $100, versus $1,000 for emergency room treatment, Catalanotto said.

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