Unless you’re an economist or a data analyst, you might not be overthinking about data trends—but if you run a small dental practice, it’s likely been at the top of mind for the past year.
While nearly every industry was hit hard by the pandemic, dental practices suffered devastating impacts. Approximately 198,000 US dentists and dental specialists shut down their offices in 2019 due to COVID-19. Since the initial stay-at-home orders, it’s been hard for dental practices to bounce back to pre-pandemic patient volume and acquisition levels. Not only are they dealing with everything that comes with a highly contagious virus, but dentists have an additional job of educating patients and ensuring it’s as safe as possible for them to come in for their appointments.
If you’ve been wondering how COVID-19 has impacted dental practices across the board, then you’re in luck. We’ve compiled data from various sources to show what’s happened over the past year and how dental practices can move forward.
COVID-19 Risks to Dentists, Staff, and Patients
Dentists reported one of the lowest rates of COVID-19 instances in healthcare. The ADA published a recent survey finding that of 2200 dentists, less than 1% tested positive for COVID-19. It seems counter-intuitive that a practice that relies on proximity is protected. Still, dentists, dental technicians, and front office staff have been practicing stringent hygiene protocols for decades.
Even with their already stringent hygiene protocols, dental practices stepped up to be even more cautious around COVID-19. 99.7% of dentists surveyed by the ADA said they implemented “enhanced protection and control procedures” to protect their patients, staff, and themselves. According to DentistryIQ, dentists are wearing more PPE, thoroughly spraying down rooms between appointments, and investing in equipment such as air purifiers and medical-grade foggers.
Keeping COVID-19 under control at the office likely played a considerable role in the success of some dental practices during COVID-19. It allowed the majority of staff to return to full-time work in June 2020 safely.
Although COVID-19 was under control at the office, many patients were still hesitant to head to the dentist due to COVID-19 concerns. A recent study showed that nearly half of all patients surveyed delayed dental appointments precisely due to COVID-19.
COVID-19 Impact on Dental Patient Volume
At the start of the pandemic during the stay-at-home order, dental offices were mainly closed. In March, the ADA reported that only 0.1% of dental offices were “open and business as usual.” Dentists and their staff watched their day-to-day operations screech to a halt along with the rest of the U.S.
It took until May 2020 until most dental practices were open, but most were still experiencing less patient volume than usual.
Even then, some dentists struggled to the extent of wanting to sell their practices. The cost of staffing, materials, rent, and other overhead expenses piled up as patient bookings decreased. Many practitioners furloughed staff, took PPP loans, and tried to adapt to new social distancing laws quickly. Along with everything else brought on by COVID-19, these factors led some dentists to consider selling their practices sooner than initially anticipated.
It’s not all negative, though. While COVID-19 has been immensely stressful for healthcare staff, the return to normal levels of dentistry spending is expected to increase gradually over time. In other words, dentistry isn’t going anywhere—it just may take some more time to ramp back up. Experts predict that spending will be at its pre-pandemic levels by 2022.
Now, in April 2021, the majority of practices are getting closer to a pre-COVID-19 patient volume. However, take this data with a grain of salt when it comes to patient demand for dental services. Many dental offices are not operating at total capacity due to social distancing and strict cleaning schedules. That means some dentists are not working at total capacity by choice, so they have the time to disinfect their spaces between appointments properly.
To get around the expensive hurdle of PPE, sanitation, and lack of space, many dental practices turned to telehealth software to help them see patients in a safe, virtual atmosphere.
The Rise of Telehealth in Dentistry Throughout COVID-19
While COVID-19 risk may be low for dental staff, patients may not feel comfortable going to the dentist for various reasons. Telehealth has become essential for keeping in contact with patients, and data suggests it’s not going anywhere soon.
From March 2020 to May 2020, teledentistry use increased to more than 20% among dentists surveyed. Use by medical providers expanded by an estimated 50-75%, more than dental providers who were boosted by 40%.
Dentists and doctors are using telehealth more, but how do patients feel? According to a recent study, the answer is very positive. 94%-99% of respondents reported feeling “very satisfied” with a variety of telehealth variables.
In other words, it’s no surprise that the telehealth trend has continued to rise throughout COVID-19, and it appears to be improving patient care in a variety of situations.
Dental Practices are Seeing More Patient Volume
While the patient acquisition is still undoubtedly affected for many dentists, some dental practices have seen an increase in patients recently rising to pre-COVID-19 levels.
As of February 2021, the ADA reported that patient volume was 81% of their pre-COVID levels. Anecdotally, some dental practices in Texas were seeing busier than expected patient volumes as early as May 2020.
Compare this to March 2020, where 90% of dental practices only saw 25% or less of their pre-COVID-19 patient volume.
In other words, the data shows that patient volume for dental practices is on an upward trajectory.
There are a few factors at play. The U.S. is currently vaccinating citizens swiftly, and the majority of dentists believe vaccines are essential and plan to get one as soon as they’re able. The Biden administrations’ passing of the American Rescue Plan provided stimulus payments, so millions of Americans are paying down accrued debt and addressing routine tasks, like dental visits, that they didn’t feel comfortable doing the height of the pandemic.
Some Dental Practices are Growing, Even in a Pandemic
Oral health issues aren’t waiting for the pandemic to ease up, and some dental practices follow suit. Some dental procedures increased patient bookings during the pandemic for existing patients and new patients.
Practices using NexHealth saw 78% more new patient bookings and 75% more existing patient bookings throughout the pandemic. On top of excellent dental care, they attribute a large part of their success to NexHealth’s patient communication software.
These successful dental practices know the importance of providing a polished patient experience, which is made easy with software like NexHealth. Compared to LocalMed, NexHealth offers speedier booking and easier booking. With NexHealth, patients can book appointments more than 30 seconds faster and only need to click five times to book an appointment with their dentist. LocalMed requires patients to click an average of 25 times before a patient can book an appointment, leading to abandoned online scheduling appointments and lower conversion rates.
Growing a dental practice during a pandemic may seem out of sight for those struggling, but a good healthcare marketing strategy backed by good patient experience tools like NexHealth can make it easier.
Patients Are Ready to Go Back to the Dentist
Even with telehealth options or the promise of safe dental appointments, we’ve already discussed that some patients may have had other priorities during the height of COVID-19. In April 2021, with vaccines ramping up and a new “normal” insight, more patients are thinking about returning to the dentist. The data backs this up, and we seem to be rounding a bend when it comes to patient willingness to come in for check-ups and regular dental care.
The ADA reports consumer confidence in returning to the dental office hit a new high in February 2021, with 90% of patients reporting to have already been back or are ready to go to the dentist.
How Can Dental Practices Bounce Back from COVID-19?
If patients are ready to come back in full force, how can dentists make the most of this situation? Based on data and our experience working with dentists, here are some tips to help increase patient volume.
1. Stay in Touch with Patients
Patients rely on their healthcare providers for guidance around COVID-19. For existing patients, let them know your office is open, following safety procedures, and about the importance of coming in for their regular cleaning and check-up. Some patients are still following “stay at home” protocols and are not convinced it’s the right time to head back to the dentist.
If you’ve moved to virtual or paperless patient management methods, let your patients know the details. Even if you have the information on your website, many patients won’t see the information unless you tell them via email, text, or phone call.
2. Provide a Seamless Patient Experience
With many patients nervous about COVID-19, it’s of the utmost importance they feel comfortable and taken care of on their first visit back to the dentist. Take the time to ensure booking, follow-ups, and billing are all handled as smoothly as possible.
Don’t forget that the patient experience doesn’t end after the appointment, so things like billing, appointment reminders, follow-ups, and more variables impact patient satisfaction. A great patient experience keeps loyal patients happy, and new patients impressed.
If you’re offering telehealth appointments, ensure you’re well prepared for a video call with your patient. Getting the basics right, like making sure your camera is bright and precise, can help patients feel reassured that they’re getting high-quality care.
3. Invest in Patient Communication Software
Providing a comprehensive patient experience is the way forward. For one, allowing patients to easily book appointments and manage their care from the comfort and safety of their homes is becoming more common. Secondly, in a COVID-19 world, it’s crucial to provide patients with the option of a paperless, touch-free experience.
NexHealth can help dental care providers modernize their practice, so it’s paperless and automated, acquire new patients, and delight their current patients.
Do you have complex workflows or a unique situation? No problem, NexHealth is built to work with complicated workflows with ease. We understand you already have your systems and software, so NexHealth fully integrates with most Practice Management Systems. Also, you can take advantage of our free, white-glove implementation to ensure NexHealth syncs ideally with your existing systems.
That’s not all; NexHealth goes above and beyond other tools to include features like:
- Real-time online scheduling & automated appointment reminders
- HIPAA-compliant, digital patient forms
- Email marketing & automation
- Patient recall
- Online reviews
- Online payments
- No show & cancellation notifications and virtual patient waitlist
After a tumultuous year for dental professionals, things appear to be gradually returning to pre-COVID-19 levels. However, as 2020 reminded us all, there’s no telling what the future will hold.
If your practice could use more refined patient communication, marketing, and automation, consider NexHealth due to its full suite of features and ease of use for dentists, staff, and patients. If you combine NexHealth’s features with standard best practices, you’ll be well set up for patient acquisition and retainment success no matter what the future throws your way.