High Cost of Dental Care at the Hospital

Emergency department visits for dental problems were expensive

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Regular dental visits might take a back seat on the list of priorities, but too many people have been using the ER for dental problems. It’s cheaper to go the dentist than to the ER.

A recent study looked at the rates of emergency department visits for dental health problems made by people with a mental health condition in the US.

The results of the study showed that many people have been using expensive hospital resources for general dental problems.

"Visit a dentist for regular check-ups."

Romesh Nalliah, BDS, an instructor and senior tutor, and John Da Silva, DMD, MPH, the chair in the Department of Restorative Dentistry and Biomedical Sciences at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine, conducted this study.

“If people do not visit the dentist regularly, they may go to hospital emergency departments and receive a diagnosis of a dental problem,” wrote the authors.

Previous studies have shown that people with severe mental illness had three times the odds of having lost all of their teeth compared to the general population.

For this study, the researchers looked at the Nationwide Emergency Department Sample, which provided data on nearly 125 million emergency department visits in 24 states in 2008.

The researchers found that among the emergency department visits, 15,635,253, or 13 percent, of the patients had a mental health condition.

The most common mental health conditions were mood disorders, such as depression, anxiety disorders, dementia, alcohol-related disorder, substance abuse-related disorder and schizophrenia.

Among the emergency department visits made by people with a mental health condition, 63,164 of the visits were for tooth, mouth or gum problems:

  • 34,573 visits for cavities
  • 25,352 visits for infected teeth
  • 9,657 visits for infected gums
  • 2,776 visits for mouth sores and inflammation

The researchers found that the average cost for an emergency department visit for dental problems in people with mental health conditions was $1,099, which amounted to $55.46 million in 2008 in the US.

The authors concluded that programs designed to reduce the use of emergency department resources to handle dental health problems could reduce the use of hospital resources for dental health purposes.

The authors recommended healthcare providers use preventive dental care practices for patients with mental health conditions.

"A patient going to the ER for a dental complaint is still a surprise to anyone except those of us that work in the ER. Dental complaints are quite common, even in those patients that have pre-existing primary care physicians and dentists,” said Chris Galloway, MD, an emergency department physician.  

“Toothaches don't discriminate as they can affect all ages with all medical conditions. I think this is a testament to the convenience and the accessibility, especially after hours. Who wants to tough it out through a day or night of severe pain when the ER is open 24 hours a day?," said Dr. Galloway, who was not involved with this study.

A regular check-up at a general dentist can run between $0 and $200 depending upon insurance coverage and location.

This study was published in June in the Journal of the American Dental Association.

No outside funding sources were listed for this project. No conflicts of interest were declared.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
June 5, 2013
Last Updated:
August 7, 2013