Back in the chair: Why a third of Europeans aren’t returning to the dentist

18 June 2020

Back in March, as governments worldwide began imposing restrictions to control the spread of Covid-19, it quickly became apparent that – despite its importance – dental care would become harder to access.

And now, despite restrictions being eased and dental clinics starting to reopen, almost a third of people are not comfortable with the idea of returning to the dentist. And those that are still need some reassurance of the importance placed upon their safety and wellbeing.

Working with market research company Toluna, we recently surveyed 2,500 people across Europe – the UK, Italy, Germany, Poland and Belgium – to gauge how the coronavirus pandemic had impacted their attitudes to dental care both during and post-lockdown.

Enduring loyalty

Traditionally, dentists have always inspired a high degree of loyalty. According to our survey, 68 percent of people make repeat visits to the same practitioner in the same clinic which, for around half of respondents, is located within 5km of their home. And, until the advent of coronavirus, engagement was high.

More than two-fifths (42%) of respondents said they’d started on a new treatment plan with their dentist within the last two years – a similar number (38%) said they’d started on two. But as things began to shut down, appointments had to be cancelled. Forty one percent said they’d had to postpone routine check-ups because their dental clinic was closed.

At the same time, however, concerns over personal safety led 14 percent to postpone appointments, even though their local dentist was still operating. For German patients, our data suggests the impact of missed appointments also lead to a higher number of urgent interventions, which was also compounded by lower-than-average levels of dental hygiene during lockdown.

Help was at hand for those who needed it and were comfortable enough to visit, though – two thirds of respondents who required emergency dental care were able to call their regular dentist, who performed the necessary procedure.

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These concerns have not yet shifted. While 30 percent of respondents said they felt uncomfortable at the prospect of returning to their dentist over the coming months, those in the worst-affected countries such as Italy and the UK expressed the greatest concern about doing so. One in five respondents considered themselves at high risk of infection, so there was no possibility of visiting their dentist in the immediate future. Otherwise, the prospect that social distancing might not be possible in the clinic’s waiting room was cited as the main consideration putting people off from returning.

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A new paradigm 

But there are steps that dentists can take to put their patients at ease. Fifty nine percent of respondents said they’d be more reassured if all clinical staff wore adequate PPE, for example, and more than half (52%) suggested arranging appointments to ensure they were the only person in the waiting room.

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And the good news is these considerations have seen forward-thinking practices adapt fast. Bludental Clinique Italia, for instance, which operates a network of dental clinics across Italy, reopened in early May once the country’s lockdown measures began to ease.

Adhering to new rules set by the Italian government, Bludental has not only equipped its medical and administrative staff with additional masks, gloves, and protective wear, but now also provides all its patients with masks. At the same time, it has modified its patient admission procedures. The group’s new measures include allowing only one patient in the waiting room at a time, storing patients’ personal belongings in secure nylon containers, and disinfecting door handles after every use.

According to Fabio Valleriani, Bludental’s CEO: “Fear and safety are the most widely confronted topics in our clinics today. Our medical and administrative personnel is working meticulously day-in, day-out to address our patients’ needs in this regard, and to ensure the high-quality treatment experience Bludental offers is maintained and performed in accordance with new rules and norms. To date, our efforts have borne fruit as our operating results have outperformed the market since reopening. Even though people’s budgets will likely be put under pressure as the Italian economy faces testing times ahead, we are confident that our focus on loyalty-generating, high-quality treatments will help us weather the storm.”  

A return to normal

Life is, slowly, starting to return to something approaching normality. But people are, understandably, concerned about the longer-term effects of the coronavirus and are changing their behaviours accordingly. Patients’ priorities may well become more nuanced: local loyalty may be considered alongside safety, availability and ease of access. But by listening to concerns, and by ensuring social distancing, and investing PPE and the highest levels of hygiene, dental clinics can help ease the minds of old – and new – patients alike.

Visiting the dentist has long been something we take for granted, and it’s clear that the experience will change. But there is no reason why this won’t be for the better, putting patients’ comfort and safety foremost.

People in this post: Simone Sallustio

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