More Americans use the ER for dental care: study

A new study released today from the Pew Center on the States finds that more Americans are getting their dental care at the hospital emergency room.

The number of ER visits nationwide for dental problems increased 16 percent from 2006 to 2009, the report said. In some states, the rise was more dramatic. ER visits for dental-related problems have jumped nearly 60 percent over the past four years in South Carolina, Pew researchers found. And in Tennessee, hospitals treat five times as many patients for dental problems as for burns.

Using emergency rooms for dental care "is incredibly expensive and incredibly inefficient," Dr. Frank Catalanotto, a professor at the University of Florida's College of Dentistry who reviewed the report, told the Associated Press. Preventive dental care such as routine teeth cleaning can cost $50 to $100, compared with $1,000 for emergency room treatment of cavities and infections, Catalanotto said.

What’s more, ER physicians and nurses are not dentists, so the services they can provide are generally limited to pain relief and fighting infections, the AP reported. When patients’ dental problems persist, they return to the ER for additional expensive stop-gap treatments. In Minnesota, nearly 20 percent of all dental-related ER visits are return trips, Pew found.

"It's the wrong service, in the wrong setting, at the wrong time," Shelly Gehshan, director of Pew's children's dental campaign, told the AP.

In many cases, patients skip regular checkups at a dentist’s office because their community has a shortage of dentists, especially those willing to treat Medicaid patients, Pew said.

The Pew report suggested a few state policy changes that could improve access to dental care, including providing incentives for pediatricians to offer basic dental services and encouraging more dentists to participate in Medicaid by keeping reimbursement rates high enough to cover the actual cost of care.

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