Why skipping the dentist during COVID-19 could come back to bite us

Dentist Mark Hutton is rarely far from his patients. In the rural South Australian city of Mount Gambier, halfway between Adelaide and Melbourne, it’s not uncommon for the person whose teeth he is working on in the morning to be serving him coffee that afternoon.

But he tries to keep his work and personal life separate, which means resisting a good-hearted reminder when he notices someone hasn’t been by the clinic in a while.

“Although, I have to admit the reverse happens,” he says. “We meet people and sometimes they’ll say, ‘By gee, it’s been a while since I’ve been to see you, I better make an appointment’.”

At the best of times, few look forward to a visit to the dentist, which for most people is recommended at least once a year. And when COVID-19 came to our shores in early 2020, it provided another reason to bump a check-up down the to-do list.

A survey released last month confirmed as much, revealing two-thirds of Australian adults hadn’t been to see their dentist in the past two years and a quarter had not been in more than five years. Of the 25,000 people surveyed by the Australian Dental Association at the end of 2021, one-third said they had postponed dental treatment since the beginning of the pandemic. 

Untreated dental issues can have quite devastating affects on our overall health, Dr Hutton warns. (Supplied: Mark Hutton)

“That’s a very high number of people who are not accessing dental services,” says Dr Hutton, who is also the national president of the Australian Dental Association (ADA).

And it’s not just COVID-19 that’s behind it, he says, with most respondents who have delayed treatment in the past 12 months reporting cost as the major factor.

It’s this combination of factors that has dentists worried. Just as people may be looking to get back into their dental health routines after COVID-19 lockdowns, increased financial pressure caused by inflation may mean, for many, it’s just too expensive right now. 

Dr Hutton says he personally hasn’t experienced a noticeable drop in patients, but he attribute that to South Australia’s limited COVID-19 lockdowns.

For Melbourne dentist Elice Chen, it’s been a far different story. The city endured almost nine months of lockdowns across 2020 and 2021. During those periods, the services dentists could offer were stripped back to emergency treatments only; no check-ups, cleans or cosmetic work.

A close shot of a woman wearing scrubs.
Melbourne dentist Elice Chen says she’s recently been seeing more cases of severe tooth decay and gum disease. (Supplied: Elice Chen)

That is largely due to the nature of the work, which requires dentists to be quite physically on the front line. There’s no social distancing when the task at hand requires you to be mere centimetres from a patient’s open mouth for extended periods of time.

While it now appears dental clinics were not a major source of transmission, in the early days Dr Chen says there was a lot of confusion.

“People were concerned about exposure to COVID, so some people were self-isolating even when it wasn’t mandated,” she says.

In dental, where issues are often out of sight and only become painful once it’s too late, prevention is everything. And without access to regular check-ups, the problem can quickly snowball.

Dr Chen describes a web of factors that have come together to create a perfect storm for people to fall out of their dental care routine.

If someone misses one appointment, they may be crossed off the contact list for reminders from the clinic.

Without that contact with dentists, personal oral health habits like flossing can also fall by the wayside.

And then there’s the reality that if you’re not leaving your house, maybe keeping your teeth in good shape becomes less of a priority.

The result, she says, has been more severe cases of gum disease and decay. 

“We’re now seeing patients who haven’t been to the dentist in two years or more, partially because of the lockdowns and partly because maybe they’ve been putting it off for a little bit before the lockdowns,” she says.

“So suddenly it’s been four or five years since the last visit — and a lot can happen to change your mouth in that time.”

A perfect storm of tooth decay

Retired truck driver Johannes Boon chuckles when he hears that the majority of Australians haven’t been to the dentist in two years.

“It’s been a lot longer than two years since I’d been to the dentist,” he says.

The 67-year-old recently visited the dentist for the first time in about eight years, but his absence wasn’t due to COVID-19 or affordability.

“I used to be an interstate truck driver, and that was one of the reasons. I was never in one place long enough,” he says.

Now retired and with some more time on his hands, he bit the bullet and made an appointment with Dr Hutton about three months ago.


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