The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the provision of dental care to vulnerable children in Australia who already experience higher levels of dental diseases and disadvantage in accessing dental care, according to the University of Melbourne and the eviDent Foundation.
From March to September in 2020, 881,454 fewer dental services were provided than the same period in 2019.
“Restrictions imposed on dentists to provide only emergency dental care effectively shut down dental practices in late March through April, and again when Victoria experienced a second wave from July to September,” said eviDent chief investigator Matt Hopcraft.
“April saw an 86.9% decrease in treatment provided through the Child Dental Benefits Schedule (CDBS) to vulnerable children across Australia, and this was replicated in Victoria later in the year,” Hopcraft said.
Restrictions on the provision of dental care were deemed necessary to minimize the risk of transmission of COVID-19, but the impact of these restrictions on oral health will be long lasting, the researchers said.
Given the chronic and progressive nature of dental disease, the deferral of necessary preventive dental care is likely to contribute to poorer oral health and long-term problems for many Australians, the researchers said.
Tooth decay is one of the most prevalent conditions affecting Australian children, affecting one in three children by the age of five to six years, the researchers said. Also, 40% of children have decay in their adult teeth by the age of 12 to 14. Dental disease is the leading cause of preventable hospitalization among Australian children as well.
The CDBS provides up to $1,000 of dental care to children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, emphasizing preventive care.
With access to care reduced during the pandemic, routine dental problems were more likely to escalate to dental emergencies. Although there was a large decrease in preventive care provided, the researchers said, the number of extractions and root canals did not decline by the same amount.
“Delayed or deferred access to dental care meant that many routine dental problems deteriorated, and dentists are now reporting more emergencies and poorer health outcomes for their patients,” said Hopcraft. “There is also real concern about the impact of delayed diagnosis of oral cancers.”
Given the chronic and progressive nature of dental disease, the deferral of necessary dental care is likely to contribute to poorer oral health and long-term problems for many Australians, the researchers said, and place greater pressure on public dental waiting lists, particularly in Victoria.