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Action for Dental Health

Emergency Department Referrals

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Why We Need Emergency Department Referrals

Inappropriate and continuous use of the Emergency Department (ED) for non-traumatic dental visits is one contributor to rising healthcare costs and lack of appropriate dental care for people across the economic spectrum. There is an increasing number of people who rely on episodic ED treatment instead of seeing dentists who can treat the complex underlying problems of dental pain and could prevent emergency situations. 

There are more than 2 million visits every year to hospital emergency rooms for dental pain – these ED visits can be referred to dental clinics, potentially saving the healthcare system $1.7 billion and getting people the right kind of care they need now.  

While emergency departments can provide pain relief and treat infection, few hospitals have dentists on staff and are not able to provide comprehensive dental care, so patients are typically prescribed painkillers or antibiotics. This does not treat the underlying cause of the problem, and 39% of these patients return to the ED.

The ED Referral initiative is an effective model for how urgent care and primary care can work together to improve access to more comprehensive, preventive care and reduce the overall cost to the healthcare system and to individual patients.

Dentists across the country are collaborating with hospitals in unique ways to refer ED patients to dental offices and clinics where they can receive appropriate, effective treatment that is significantly less expensive than that available in a hospital. 

Quick Facts:

  • ED visits for dental health care cost three times as much as a visit to the dentist, averaging $749 if the patient isn’t hospitalized, amounting to $1.6 billion annually (one-third of which is paid by Medicaid).
  • In 2009, abscesses and dental caries – both largely preventable conditions – accounted for nearly 80 percent of dental-related emergency room visits, according to the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project.
  • Studies have shown that the uninsured and Medicaid patients seek dental care in the ED more frequently than those with insurance.
    • Women ages 21 to 34 are the highest users of EDs for dental problems. As states cut adult dental Medicaid benefits in an attempt to reduce healthcare costs, these costs are simply shifted to the ED to provide palliative care for preventable dental conditions.
    • Visits to the ED for dental pain are costly and can range from $400 to $1,500 compared to a $90 to $200 visit to a dentist. The most extreme cases of untreated dental infections have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in hospitalization and some have tragically ended in needless death.
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