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Business as usual? Solo dentists lag behind group practices and DSOs in pandemic recovery

By Jeremy Booth, Dental Tribune International
June 22, 2021

CHICAGO, U.S.: How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting dental practice? The American Dental Association (ADA) has been engaging with thousands of U.S. dentists every month in order to answer this question. The latest Health Policy Institute (HPI) survey results found that around 61% of all clinics were open and operating normally, but that dental support organizations (DSOs) and larger group practices were more likely to be experiencing pre-pandemic patient volumes.

According to the results of HPI’s May survey, DSO-affiliated practices have rebounded more strongly than non-DSO affiliated practices. Of the respondents affiliated with a DSO, 78.8% said that the clinic that they worked at was open and conducting business as usual, 21.2% said that patient volume was lower than usual, and no respondents reported clinic closures.

Among all respondents that were not affiliated with a DSO, 60.1% said that the dental practice at which they worked was open and conducting business as usual, 39.1% said that the clinic was open but experiencing lower patient volume than usual, and 0.8% reported that the clinic was closed and not seeing any patients.

Clinics run by non-DSO-affiliated solo dentists showed the slowest recovery. In the survey, 56.2% of solo dentists said that their clinic was operating as normal, 42.8% said that patient volume was lower than usual, and 1.0% said that their clinic was closed and that they were not seeing any patients.

The ADA said that, nationally, patient volume was at 86% of pre-pandemic levels for private dental practices

These findings represent a continuing improvement for solo dentists, and they stand in stark contrast to HPI survey results from 12 months prior. In the week of May 18, 2020, just 10.7% of solo dentists said that their clinic was operating as normal, 52.4% of clinics were open but experiencing lower patient volume, 28.8% were treating only emergency cases, and 8.1% of solo dentist-led clinics were closed and not seeing any patients.

Larger group practices were more likely to have returned to business as usual. The survey showed that 67.8% of clinics with two to nine dentists and 70.6% of clinics with ten or more dentists were operating normally. The latter result was the greatest among non-DSO-affiliated respondents, but was eight percentage points shy of the 78.8% full recovery rate reported by DSO-affiliated respondents.

Broken down by geography, dental clinics in the 20 largest U.S. cities showed a 59.0% full recovery rate, and clinics located in suburban and rural areas showed a full recovery rate of 65.8% and 65.5%, respectively.

Patient volume at U.S. dental clinics is climbing steadily

The HPI data showed that patient volume had returned to more than 95% of pre-pandemic levels for 38.7% of all U.S. dental clinics and to between 86% and 95% of pre-pandemic levels for 33.3% of all U.S. dental clinics.

For DSO-affiliated practices, patient volume was found to have returned to more than 95% for 54.7% of clinics and to between 86% and 95% for 26.6% of clinics. For non-DSO-affiliated solo dentists, just 34.3% said that their patient volume had returned to more than 95%.

In a press release, the ADA said that, nationally, patient volume was at 86% of pre-pandemic levels for private dental practices. It explained: “HPI found that number varied slightly according to geography and the type of practice. The highest patient volumes were reported by dentists practicing in rural areas (90%), small group practices (88%) and by endodontists (91%).”

HPI began conducting the Economic Impact of COVID-19 on Dental Practices survey in March 2020. The latest survey, from which the results reported here were taken, was conducted in the week of May 17, 2021, and received responses from 1,712 dentists.

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