The COVID-19 pandemic continues to take its economic toll on many industries. The dental industry, in particular, suffered a 6% decline in 2020 because of the widespread shutdowns and the inability to perform many routine appointments and elective procedures that often lead to the bulk of dental revenue for many practices. The decline, although steep, is less than the projected 38% loss that the American Dental Association was predicting in June 2020; however, it still hit many dental professionals hard.
That lost revenue caused by the inability to practice traditional dentistry leaves the door open to question the possibility that another form of oral health care—teledentistry—could have spared dentists some of the losses and even made profit possible. But could teledentistry have really saved that lost revenue?
The Loss Rollercoaster
While the lockdowns imposed by regions set many dentists towards full closures or limited hours based only on emergency needs, there was still money to be made. Emergency procedures for cracked and broken teeth, for example, were on the rise because of the stress jaw clenching and teeth grinding that the pandemic led to in many people. The lack of routine care coupled with the stress from the pandemic led to a rise in those types of procedures, which in turn, should have garnered more revenue for dentists across the country. These types of appointments were not seen until June of 2020.
The month-to-month loss is what really drove that 6% decline average over the course of the year. At the beginning of 2020, there was an increase in appointments; however, by March, April, and May, the decrease in booked hygiene appointments dropped dramatically by 47%. While the summer months saw yet another increase when restrictions began to loosen, those numbers started dropping again in the fall.
Consequences of the Lost Revenue
With all that lost revenues, dental practices were forced into corners to keep themselves profitable during the pandemic. Data from Dental Intelligence found that from mid-January to mid-February of this year, 10% of all dental practices had to rely on downsizing the number of staff they had on the payroll and 27% had to increase patient fees to make up for their losses.
This leads to less available hands in the office, which, in turn, could lead to reduced availability of appointments for patients, overbooking, and a lower quality of care. With that in mind, the higher fees for patients and the aforementioned consequence of fewer staff makes the industry situation appear bleak.
Could Teledentistry Have Been A Saving Grace?
Although teledentistry has been around for decades, it has not been overly popular with dentists across the country. This slow uptake could be the result of a myriad of different reasons. Research has shown that some dental professionals believe that teledentistry poses risks surrounding the privacy of a patient's records and results, diagnostic accuracy, and reliability when it comes to the technology used. This, however, does not make up for the fact that had the adoption taken place before the onset of the pandemic, systems would have already been in place that could have mitigated the lost revenue.
Without needing to deal with as many in-person visits, dentists could have kept up with routine appointments online as needed and continue to collect revenue during the mandatory closures. Not only that, but dental professionals working from a remote location could have also made time for more patients throughout the day, made themselves available to patients in remote areas, and thus gained access to even further revenue bumps by being more accessible.
Saving Money Could Have Prevented Lost Revenue
A big part of serving patients during the COVID-19 pandemic revolved around extra safety measures. That meant the enhanced PPE requirements, disposable equipment and more intense sterilization and sanitation protocols ended up costing some practices more money than they were making. With fewer appointments and more costs, it is no wonder that revenue was lost. With the use of teledentistry, the need for extra PPE would have decreased significantly. Virtual appointments do not require the use of any additional safety measures, which would have made PPE and equipment purchases by dentists stretch farther.
Teledentistry is also less expensive for dental professionals to provide in other ways. During the lockdowns and closures, dental professionals could have continued to make revenue from appointments while lowering overhead costs that accrue with an in-office appointment.
While it cannot be said with certainty that teledentistry would have saved dentists from losing money during 2020, it is safe to assume that at the very least, the adoption of the technology-driven version of oral health care could have kept things on a more even keel when it came to providing quality health care while maintaining a steady revenue stream.