Doctor, my tooth hurts: the costs of incomplete dental care in the emergency room

J Public Health Dent. 2010 Summer;70(3):205-10. doi: 10.1111/j.1752-7325.2010.00166.x.


Objectives: This study aims to examine the charges and frequency of return visits for treating dental health problems in hospital emergency rooms (ERs) in order to provide a basis for policy discussion concerning cost-effective and appropriate treatment for those without access to private dental services.

Methods: Records were abstracted from hospital administrative data systems for dental-related ER visits from five major hospital systems in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area during a 1-year period. Data on the number of visits and charges were analyzed by age and type of payor (public or private). Similar data were obtained from records for a commercially insured population from a single large employer.

Results: There were over 10,000 visits to ERs for dental-related problems with total charges reaching nearly $5 million in 1 year, mainly charged to public programs and reimbursed at about 50 percent. The frequency of repeat visits suggests that while acute pain and infection were treated by the ER physicians, the underlying dental problem often was not resolved. In contrast, a population with commercial dental insurance rarely used hospital ERs for dental problems.

Conclusions: Access to preventive and restorative dental care is a critical public health problem in the United States, particularly for those without insurance and those covered by public programs. Public health policy initiatives such as the use of dental therapists should be expanded to improve access and to provide alternatives that offer more complete and less costly care for oral health problems than do hospital ERs.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cost-Benefit Analysis
  • Dental Care / economics*
  • Dental Care / statistics & numerical data
  • Dental Caries / economics
  • Dental Service, Hospital / economics*
  • Dental Service, Hospital / statistics & numerical data
  • Emergency Service, Hospital / economics*
  • Emergency Service, Hospital / statistics & numerical data
  • Financing, Personal / economics
  • Financing, Personal / statistics & numerical data
  • Health Care Costs
  • Health Services Accessibility / economics
  • Health Services Accessibility / statistics & numerical data
  • Hospital Charges / statistics & numerical data
  • Hospitals, Urban / economics
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Insurance, Health / economics
  • Insurance, Health / statistics & numerical data
  • Medicaid / economics
  • Medicaid / statistics & numerical data
  • Medical Assistance / economics
  • Medical Assistance / statistics & numerical data
  • Middle Aged
  • Minnesota
  • Periapical Abscess / economics
  • Periodontitis / economics
  • Reimbursement Mechanisms / economics
  • Reimbursement Mechanisms / statistics & numerical data
  • Retreatment
  • United States
  • Young Adult