BY RANDI TILLMAN, DMD
COVID-19 was a challenging period for dentists and patients alike. At the start of the pandemic, dental offices were forced to close for a period of time leaving many patients without access to dental care, and many dentists and staff with few patients. Slowly, dental offices re-opened, safety measures were put in place, and adults resumed visiting their dentist. According to Guardian’s Workplace Benefits Study, seven in 10 adults say they have been to the dentist during COVID-19 and 76% brought their child.
Despite overall lower dental utilization during the pandemic, only a fraction of U.S. adults reported that the pandemic made them value their dental benefits less, and those with insurance were far likelier to visit the dentist during COVID than those without. In fact, our research confirmed that 75% of adults with dental insurance visited the dentist at least twice during the pandemic versus only 58% of those without dental coverage. These findings continue to reinforce the value of dental benefits, and the impact they have on oral health.
For example, let’s take a look at a survey conducted earlier this year by the American Dental Association. As patients began to return to dental offices, general practice dentists reported the following changes in patients’ oral health conditions: 76% reported an increase in grinding/clenched teeth; 67.7% saw an increase in chipped teeth; and 68.5% saw an increase in cracked teeth, as compared to before the pandemic. The findings also showed an increase in tooth decay (30%) and periodontal disease. We know that these conditions can result in tooth loss, and it has been widely documented that poor oral health can have a negative impact on overall health.
With a renewed focus on physical and emotional well-being as a result of the pandemic, this is an opportunity for brokers and benefits consultants to remind employers of how important it is to consider including dental benefits as part of an employee benefits package. The upside is that our research revealed that COVID-19 influenced employer’s attitudes toward dental benefits. Though only 11% say they’ve made changes to dental coverage during COVID, nearly a quarter report they are planning future changes to dental benefits with 44% saying they plan to add coverage.
As patients began to return to dental offices, general practice dentists reported the following changes in patients’ oral health conditions: 76% reported an increase in grinding/clenched teeth; 67.7% saw an increase in chipped teeth; and 68.5% saw an increase in cracked teeth, as compared to before the pandemic.
The latest findings also underscore the value of understanding consumer attitudes and behaviors toward oral health. As we all know, The Great Resignation is impacting the labor market, and employers should think about the overall make-up of their benefits package to help attract and retain talent. What’s encouraging is that dental benefits continue to evolve with the times, and as we see time and time again, employees who have dental benefits, use them and are more likely to have better oral health. One key example is the importance of a strong dental network – 88% of those surveyed said their dentist is in-network – which also reinforces that if consumers have dental insurance and it has a strong network, they will visit a dentist for annual check-ups.
Additional key takeaways that brokers should keep in mind from our research include:
- Infection Control
Measures Better Than Ever: COVID-19 was a turning point in more advanced dental safety with more than eight in 10 dentists adopting new infection control processes and procedures during the pandemic. While dental offices have always been held to a high standard when it applies
to safety, the pandemic raised it to another level. The increased usage of PPE for staff, equipment that minimizes aerosols, and limiting the number of patients coming in and out of the office – all of these have played a positive role in increasing patient confidence and reducing risk. Our research also showed that 58% of patients noted that personally being vaccinated against COVID-19 made them feel more comfortable about returning to the dentist.
- Teledentistry on the Rise:
Dental office closures prompted more practices to implement teledentistry than in the past. Teledentistry is the use of technology and tactics to provide virtual dental, medical and education services to patients who otherwise may need a consultation before visiting the dentist. This was incredibly useful for patients during the pandemic who may have been hesitant
to see their dentist in person. Our research validated consumers believe teledentistry is a good option in certain situations with 72% saying it’s helpful for consultations related to future dental work; 66% cited emergencies and 58% said it’s good if
they are traveling. Long-term, we believe that teledentistry will continue to be appealing to consumers, particularly for millennials and GenZ employees.
Many consumers reported using digital methods to communicate with dental practices and insurance companies during the pandemic and want to continue to have this as an option.
- Preference for Digital
Communications: Whether it’s providing information around dental benefits or oral health, our findings validated that clear communications and the manner of delivery is important to today’s consumers. Many consumers reported using digital methods to communicate with dental practices and insurance companies during the pandemic and want to continue to have this as an option. For example, 69% said they want to use tech to get explanation of benefits, and 62% said they want to use tech to get information on oral health. This makes it equally important for employers to think about providing digital tools and frequent communications to their employees since benefits education will only contribute to overall utilization.
- Innovation in Dental:
When growing interest in consumers who say they’d be interested in discounts on cosmetic services through their dental insurers, particularly when it comes to invisible aligners and teeth whitening.
It would be worthwhile for brokers to find out if the dental carriers they work with have started to form partnerships with innovative companies, like byte®. Including discounts on cosmetic dental services as part of their dental benefits is a plus, especially for the millennials and GenZ consumers, who want to have these options.
The pandemic put a lot of stress on many industries, particularly for dental practices who have slowly started to rebound this year as more Americans return for their annual check-ups. At the same time, employers and employees are demonstrating a greater awareness on the importance of physical and emotional well-being. Dental benefits – whether employer-sponsored or employee-paid – need to be part of every employer’s well-being strategy. Our research validated that without access to dental offices during the pandemic, oral health declined. Whether that means adding and/or increasing contributions to dental benefits or improving employee communications to increase awareness around their dental benefits, employers – alongside brokers – can play an important role in helping improve America’s oral health.
DR. RANDI TILLMAN, DMD is chief dental officer, Guardian Life.