Dental Emergencies: Using ED Visits for Dental Problems

(Salt Lake City, UT) – Between 2007 and 2017, there were nearly 56,000 admissions to Utah hospital emergency departments (ED) for dental care related to non-traumatic and preventable diagnoses, resulting in charges of nearly $52 million. A new report released by the Utah Department of Health (UDOH) Oral Health Program shows since EDs are ill-equipped to handle comprehensive dental services, most of the patients are simply treated for pain and/or infection rather than the cause of the dental complaint. Due to the availability of quality care and the likelihood of continuity of care, patients who present at an ED for a non-traumatic dental condition would be better served in a dental office.

Dr. Kim Michelsen, State Dental Director, UDOH says, “Oral health is a major public health problem because of its impact on individuals and communities as a result of pain and suffering. Good oral health is critical to overall health and well-being.” Poor oral health is associated with increased use of health care services and increased risk for chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. Along with a connection to other diseases, oral health can affect time at work and school.

Of the 55,239 admissions to Utah EDs for dental care, nearly half (48.4%) occurred after regular business hours (i.e., between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m.). The majority of the admissions were the result of an abscess at the tip of the root (50.6%), which occur secondary to dental cavities and periodontitis (gum disease), all of which are preventable. Abscesses can lead to severe complications including sepsis, hemorrhage, and even death.

Many of the excessive costs of ED-related oral health visits are preventable with routine dental care. Additionally, efforts to increase dental coverage and care may have significant positive effects on the physical and mental well-being of many individuals.

Evidence-based policy changes and programs associated with improved dental health outcomes and expanded care to vulnerable populations could impact or be adapted to address unmet dental issues in Utah:
• Increase after-hours and urgent care dental clinics
• Integrate oral health into well child visits, as children are more likely to see a pediatrician or family doctor before they see a dentist
• Increase areas with community water fluoridation
• Implement teledentistry (i.e., a dental team provides preventive and restorative care to populations without access to dental care such as Utahns living in rural areas of the state) and professionals practicing at the top of the scope of their licenses

The full report can be found at

Media Contact:
Michelle Martin RDH, MPH
Oral Health Specialist