CHICAGO (AP) — More Americans are turning to the emergency room for routine dental problems, according to researchers at the Pew Center on the States, Washington.
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, Pew researchers said in a report released today.
The number of ER visits nationwide for dental problems increased 16% from 2006 to 2009, and Pew researchers said they believe 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, a 40% increase from 2008.
Many ER dental visits involve the same patients seeking additional care. In Minnesota, nearly 20% of all dental-related ER visits are return trips, the analysis said.
That’s because emergency rooms generally are not staffed by dentists. They can offer pain relief and medicine for infected gums but not much more for dental patients. And many patients are unable to find or afford follow-up treatment, so they end up back in the emergency room.
“Emergency rooms are really the canary in the coal mine,” said Shelly Gehshan, director of Pew’s children’s dental campaign. ”If people are showing up in the ER for dental care, then we’ve got big holes in the delivery of care. It’s just like pouring money down a hole. It’s the wrong service, in the wrong setting, at the wrong time.”
The Pew researchers analyzed hospital information from 24 states, data from the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, and studies on dental care.
Not all states collect data on ER visits for dental care, but those that do reveal the trend, Gehshan said.
In 2009 alone:
— 56% of Medicaid-enrolled children nationwide received no dental care.
— South Carolina ER visits for dental-related problems increased nearly 60% from four years earlier.
— Tennessee hospitals had more than 55,000 dental-related ER visits — five times as many as for burns.