​A new survey reveals the true cost of the pandemic on patient oral health, which has been described as a 'dental disaster'.

A Wrigley Oral Healthcare Programme survey of 420 dental professionals found that just over three quarters (76%) have seen a significant, or very significant, impact on patients’ oral health since the beginning of the pandemic.

Three quarters of those who have seen a significant or very significant impact on the oral health of their patients have noticed a decline in routine dental appointments during the pandemic. Hygienist appointments have also fallen by the wayside as dentists have only been able to see, for the most part, urgent appointments.

Meanwhile, the FDI World Dental Federation say they too are seeing first-hand the catastrophic aftermath of the virus on the health of people’s teeth and gums in dental practices around the globe, with President, Dr Gerhard Konrad Seeberger, saying: ‘Let’s call it for what it is – a dental disaster. Restrictions have certainly played a part in oral health hesitancy, but they don’t tell the whole story.’

Dental professionals continue to worry about the impact that continued lockdowns are having on their ability to see and treat patients.

In the UK, nearly two thirds of respondents (65%) said they expect normal service to resume within either the next six months to a year, suggesting that even if the third national lockdown lifts gradually from March as planned, the return to normal services will be slow, given the stringent COVID-19 measures in place.

Findings by a recent survey conducted by the FDI suggests oral health professionals have significantly lower SARS-CoV-2 infection rates than other healthcare workers in most parts of the world but, despite this, many people have still avoided routine check-ups and only visit the dentist once they are in extreme pain.

Many have developed advanced tooth decay and related complications, including infections, which makes treatment more complex.

The Wrigley Oral Healthcare Programme survey reveals that 71% of respondents have shifted to recommending at-home oral health tools while their patients have been unable to access treatment or attend practices. Prominent at-home recommendations included floss, mouthwash, electric toothbrushes and interdental brushes, as well as continuing to encourage good oral health routines.

The survey also revealed that 71% of dental professionals recommend the use of sugarfree gum as an oral health tool for their patients as demonstrated by the systematic review of the oral health benefits of sugarfree gum released by King’s College London Faculty of Dentistry, Oral & Craniofacial Sciences (KCL) in November 2019.

Dr Ben Atkins, President of the Oral Health Foundation said: ‘It is clear that the dental profession has faced an unprecedented challenge in the COVID-19 pandemic. In the first lockdown, dentists were unable to operate practically any services except urgent care and the subsequent COVID-19 guidance for the industry, whilst essential for dentists’ and patients’ safety, has meant that most practices are unable to see the volume of patients they’d like. This survey highlights the important role that at-home measures have played in protecting the oral health of the nation while people are unable to access regular dental care, and the role they will likely continue to play as we look ahead to hopefully exiting lockdown.’

Eddie Crouch, Chair of the British Dental Association said: ‘The impact COVID-19 has had on the nation's oral health will be felt for years to come. Even before COVID-19 deep health inequalities and access problems were the norm, and now both have been set into overdrive. “Business as usual” will not be returning any time soon, and policymakers, patients and practitioners all need to make the right choices if we're to avert an oral health crisis.’

Dr Seeberger emphasised that 'people must not be afraid to visit the dentist. Safeguarding oral health is of paramount importance to ensure general health, well-being and a good quality of life'.