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"Full steam ahead": 2021 increase in dental spending

Dec. 19, 2022
Overall health-care spending in the US slowed in 2021 compared to 2020, but dental spending increased by 11% in that time frame. The ADA breaks down why.

Even as overall health-care spending in the US slowed in 2021 compared to 2020, dental spending increased by 11% in that time frame, to some $162 billion in 2021—a situation indicative of “full steam ahead for the dental economy.”

Health-care spending in 2021 reached $4.3 trillion, but that increase is well below the gross domestic product (GDP), which jumped 10.7%. The share of health-care spending within the economy, as measured by GDP, fell to 18.3% in 2021, down from 19.7% in 2020.

According to HealthExec, the fall in spending corresponded with increases in use of health-care services and goods, as well as a decline in federal government health-care spending. While federal spending for COVID-19 continued in 2021, it was a much lower level compared to 2020.

But it was another story with dentistry.

Dental spending in 2021 was higher than it was before the pandemic, an increase that the ADA Health Policy Institute (HPI) attributed to “Patients…flocking back to the dentist as we started getting back to normal preventive health care routines and providers adapted to new clinical protocols. But just as important, the federal government provided significant funding to the sector in the form of the Provider Relief Fund and the Paycheck Protection Program that clearly provided a financial stimulus.” 

In an HPI email about the data, HPI chief economist and vice president Marko Vujicic, PhD, said that "The data show that in 2021 it was full steam ahead for the dental economy."

Also noted in the email was an increase of 25% in government program spending, with Medicare and Medicaid spending each going up by some $2 billion. Private health insurance spending was up by 11% and out-of-pocket spending increased by 13%.

Such growth in public spending “was already a trend prepandemic, but it really accelerated, according to the HPI email. Public spending grew much faster than out-of-pocket dental spending and private insurance spending.”

According to the HPI, it’s likely that 2022 data will show a slowing of dental expenditure growth.

"Zooming out, newer HPI data suggest 2022 is shaping up to be more of a holding pattern, with spending growing much more slowly as pent-up demand disappears and staffing shortages limit capacity," Vujicic said. "Looking ahead, this time next year, we expect more modest growth."