Are the ADA and WHO at Odds Over Essential Health Care?

As dental practices continue to open in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, the World Health Organization (WHO) recently issued guidance recommending dental practices prioritize essential care and delay routine, nonessential care in communities where transmission of the coronavirus is high.

Days before the WHO issued its recommendations, the American Dental Association (ADA) Board of Trustees adopted an interim policy stating that dentistry is essential health care. ADA President Chad P. Gehani said in part, “this policy recognizes the need for people to be able to continue to access the full range of dental services…[to] maintain their oral health and contribute to their overall health.”

The Board will consider the policy as a resolution during its virtual meeting in October, part of a comprehensive advocacy strategy. Nonetheless, as dentists consider whether to provide a full range of services, the first rule of thumb is to follow the guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

When it comes to protecting your practice from potential pandemic-related liabilities, however, it is crucial to consult with a lawyer who represents dental professionals.

Dental Care: Elective, Emergency or Essential Services

While the ADA initially called for dentists to postpone all services except for urgent and emergency cases as the virus spread, most states had lifted restrictions on dental offices by the end of May. Now that COVID-19 cases are spiking in many states, members of the dental community fear that governors may once again limit services to urgent and emergency care.

The ADA believes that such limitations could adversely impact dental professionals and the oral health of the public. In a nutshell, the policy states that oral health is essential to overall health. As such, the role of dentistry in evaluating, diagnosing, preventing and treating oral diseases makes it an essential healthcare service.

The policy also advises that the ADA use the term “essential dental care” instead of “emergency dental care” and “elective dental care” when advocating before regulators and lawmakers about the range of dental care — essential dental care is defined as any care that prevents and eliminates infection and preserves the patient’s teeth.

Finally, the policy is intended to prompt state agencies and government officials to designate the oral health workforce as essential during public health emergencies. While government agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have acknowledged dentistry as an essential service, guidance issued by the WHO recommends delaying routine, non-essential oral health care, including checkups, dental cleaning, preventive care and aesthetic dental treatment.

Given that dental professionals work in close contact with patients, are exposed to saliva and blood, and use aerosol-generating equipment, the WHO recommends that dental workers avoid or minimize procedures that may generate aerosols, which can spread the coronavirus.

The Takeaway

In the final analysis, the inconsistent guidelines from certain public health officials and state governors combined with the reluctance of lawmakers to extend liability protection to medical professionals and businesses pose a serious challenge to dental professionals. The best way to protect your practice as the pandemic unfolds is by adhering to CDC safety protocols and having the informed representation LaMaster Law, LLC provides.