We are all asking ourselves “when” we will return to normal life after this pandemic, but although this is the most pressing issue, the most disturbing question is probably “how” this hypothetical normality will be.
The pandemic impact
Perhaps also for this reason, all over the world we speak more and more often of “new normal”, namely that phase, which will probably last for years, characterized by at least three influencing variables coming into play:
- the management of the endemic phase of the virus
- the new logics of socialization
- the great economic crisis ahead of us.
These three points certainly don’t need much comment. As regards the management of the endemic phase, it is rather obvious that the timing for achieving herd immunity, the real effectiveness of vaccines also against any other variants, the modalities and programming for periodic boosters are all factors affecting both behavior and social organization. In the workplace, remote work will in any case be more frequently exploited and business travel limited (a return to the level of air traffic recorded in 2019 is expected not before 2025). Certain economic sectors will suffer the impact of the pandemic for a long time, for example those most affected by remote work, which will become regular practice even for just a few days a week (with an impact on services related to commuting, food services, etc.), or the retail trade, if we consider the enormous impact of the development of e-commerce and its inexorable acquisition of market shares. At the same time, some areas will also considerably grow, such as IT, pharmaceuticals, delivery services, etc. There will also be sectors strongly supported by the European Recovery Fund, but these too will only allow the development of specific sectors, according to each national Government’s plan, whose fundamentals are based on ecological transition, digital transformation, employment and smart, sustainable and inclusive growth, measures looking to the next generation, including education and skills development, etc.
As anticipated, not all sectors will have the same support. The dramatic collapse of gross product, production, and export, as well as the significant rise in public debt, will take years to return to 2019 levels. Unfortunately, the only aspect we are sure about is the uncertainty regarding these factors.
Despite everything, as we will see here following, the dental sector can be considered as central and essential to the health of the population.
Let’s see then throughout this article some thoughts on the impact of the pandemic in Italy and on the probable recovery dynamics occurring in the dental sector.
My job, as head of the Key-Stone research institute, is to collect, process and analyze data, but I am often also asked to produce forecasts and strategic guidelines. Well, over this year my writings, interventions and seminars have been numerous, however, I have always explained the serious lack we have faced, that is the uncertainty due to the total absence of past data. This aspect makes it impossible to work on mathematical models, moreover, there are just few similarities with past pandemics, since in the last serious ones the social and healthcare context was totally different.
Nonetheless, in this catastrophic year, Governments, international organizations, the biggest world strategic consultants, all research institutes (including Key-Stone), companies and associations, have begun to collect and catalog qualitative information and quantitative data, developing economic forecasts and theories on the post-Covid-19 recovery.
Also in relation to the Italian dental sector, we can count on numerous researches and studies carried out this year, and thanks to this contribution I would like to share some food for thought, by explaining what we believe the steps to recovery will be, in terms of demand for dental services.
As I have already had the opportunity to write, the current crisis arises from an interruption in interconnections. During the three-month lockdown, we were prevented from moving, from consuming, although there would have been financial possibilities, in theory. But even later, until today, if we give up buying and consuming certain products or services, it is often not because of a shortage of money, but rather because of an objective unfeasibility connected to social distancing policies. In addition to that, we must take job uncertainty into account, another dominant word in recent months; an uncertainty that now affects many millions of Italian families, especially considering those who work in sectors heavily affected by the pandemic (travel, tourism, food service, non-food retail trade, etc.).
But what happens in consumption, when we are faced with a phase of uncertainty or, worse, of real or imminent worsening of the family economic situation? First, all those spending decisions that are deemed unnecessary or simply not indispensable are postponed. Unfortunately, among these, we also find the expenses for dental services.
Analysis of the short-term impact on dental treatments
In November 2020, Key-Stone interviewed 1,200 Italian families and it emerged that one in four Italians, aged between 20 and 74, would have renounced the dentist, except for urgent needs, until the end of 2021. These are 13 million Italians, whose uncertainties due to the pandemic are now added to their traditional economic and cultural problems. The percentage rises to about 40% for those who have had or think they have precarious employment and economic situation because of the pandemic.
However, considering that a part of the population would have renounced the dentist anyway (most of them because of structural economic reasons not attributable to Covid-19), 61% of these undoubtedly attribute this choice directly to the pandemic, because of the consequent worsening of their economic situation or for fear of being infected.
On the other hand, a positive note comes from the segment of children and adolescents: according to Key-Stone’s research, the intention to give up on treatments is reduced in the case of children aged between 6 and 19, whether it deals with more expensive treatments -such as orthodontic ones- or checkups and routine treatments.
In conclusion, the real effect of the pandemic would cause a reduction in the demand for dental services estimated around -13%, at least one billion less in dental expenditure and therefore in lost revenues for the sector.
Possible future needs
In this context, Key-Stone explored the topic in depth, trying to understand which areas of need are most felt by the population and which is the expected procrastination time for treatments.
First of all, it is worth remembering that the citizens interviewed do not always have the clinical skills to be able to judge their own needs in terms of dental services, moreover the climate of trust can change suddenly depending on the overall pandemic situation and on personal experience.
The research conducted confirmed how a certain fear for infection, but above all economic and employment uncertainty has pushed part of the population to postpone non-urgent dental care. This situation is also quite usual in times of famine, crises when confidence in the future decreases. In fact, it is normal for people to prefer to solve basic needs (in our case pain or urgent functional problems), neglecting other expenses that may be postponed.
By re-processing the data coming from the research, we have extrapolated the percentage of adult population claiming to be likely in need of certain dental therapies and treatments, even if not in the immediate future.
In Figure 1 we can see a ranking of the main treatments, first of all, fillings then oral hygiene, concerning almost half of the interviewees, immediately followed by extractions, implants (with consequent prostheses), and traditional orthodontics. There are fewer esthetic needs, such as veneers, or treatments with aligners.
Intention to postpone dental treatments
To the same people who stated possible future needs, we asked if they thought to be treated soon or if they would have preferred to postpone dental care as later as possible, or even to give it up. In Figure 2, we can see how the intention to postpone dental treatments is higher for those rated as more expensive. It is slightly surprising that some treatments more related to esthetic needs have a rather high procrastination rate even though patients who manifest these needs have medium-high levels of education and income.
Map of the potential needs and the intervention priority
By matching the results of the potential needs with the intervention priority (i.e. the reverse of the intention to postpone), it is possible to have a clearer representation (Figure 3) of the therapeutic areas that could be most affected in the short term, a period that we could probably frame up to the end of 2021.
The areas of implants and prostheses will probably have greater difficulties in recovering in the short term, while others -more related to restoration– could move faster towards a normal condition. The situation of orthodontics is peculiar, since for adults it may present a certain slow recovery, while as regards therapies for children (not shown in this chart), a much smaller crisis is expected, as explained here following.
However, the scenario just outlined depends on the type of the dental practice patients, considering their average socio-economic level, the working sector of their families and the geographical areas where they live, in the event that the local economy is particularly affected by the effects of the confinement measures.
The dental treatments are essential
At the same time, this research reveals some very important information, already widely emphasized in the media, namely that 30% of those who during the phase of total confinement (March-May 2020) had problems with their teeth or mouth without having been able or willing to go to the dentist, reported a worsening in their oral situation. The numbers coming from the research carried out by Key-Stone for SIdP at the end of the lockdown period speak for themselves: over 10 million Italians had problems with their teeth and gums during the ten-week confinement and about 3 million state that the situation has worsened because of the impossibility to go to the dentist. It is therefore unquestionable that dental treatments must be considered essential.
We are therefore dealing with a sector, and indeed also a market, where the fundamentals are solid, where long-term structural crises cannot be foreseen, but which can contract or expand based on economic and social external phenomena, which lead to the postponement of certain treatments in particular periods.
Medium-long term recovery dynamics
According to the main theories on post-pandemic recovery, we must consider that after a first phase of giving up certain goods, especially services (which are generally postponed in the process of hierarchizing personal and family expenses) by part of the population, there will be a physiological long-term settlement (probably for at least a year) during which the population, gradually emerging from economic hardship or uncertainty, will resume even the most expensive treatments. In the meantime, it should not be forgotten that, unfortunately, some of those who have delayed oral care for too long will have a more compromised oral situation. Following this recovery, however, the demand for services should settle at slightly lower levels, following the trend that was already taking place in the three-year period 2017-2019. In this analysis, the observation of what happened during the great recession 2008-2013, with an exceptional recovery in dental care in the following two-year period 2014-2015 and the subsequent slowdown in growth up to the stagnant or slightly declining situation reported by ISTAT in 2018 and 2019, helps us a lot. As far as dental care is concerned, even the first phase of lockdown resulted in a strong recovery in summer 2020. It was very intense and short-lived, due not to the citizens’ waivers, but to the numerous tratments interrupted between March and May.
The recovery phases
In Figure 4, we can see the possible recovery phases characterizing the dental sector.
Let’s identify and analyze the six phases described in the model, and let’s make some reflections.
The results obtained by the study about the last pre-Covid years should not be overlooked, as they are a key indicator of the sector business fundamentals. Obviously, if the clinic was under development and was in a financially prosperous position, it is very likely that it will recover more quickly, perhaps by increasing its market share, at the expense of those who already had problems in their own business, with declining results, difficulty in generating profit and financial weakness. For practices that were already having problems, the shock of this crisis could be lethal and some of them may decide to reduce their activity or close.
The almost total impossibility to access the clinic has had a devastating impact on their financial situation, as well as a long-term impact on the organizational system. Despite the possibility to benefit from payroll subsidies to reduce the impact of personnel expenses, during the three-month lockdown the dental practices’ owners had to incur the fixed costs, many of them by using their own resources and drawing upon personal assets, while some dentists have turned to banks for a loan. But these expenses will have to be recovered, or in any case, be returned to the family assets: it would therefore be appropriate to plan the profits for the next few years to calculate the payback times of the investment.
The more-than-10-week total confinement halted an enormous amount of work, which poured into the clinics in the period May-September 2020, to carry out the suspended treatments and those for which patients had already decided. According to an accurate survey carried out by Key-Stone, the treatments remained blocked would have covered about 50 working days; the research was able to objectively affirm that at the resumption, in the second half of May, more than one billion euros treatments were resumed in the sector (more than 30,000 euros work to be completed on average per dental practice).
But it was a short-lived recovery. It must be remembered that, in the meantime, no new patients showed up for almost three months and new treatments took place only in the autumn, partially compromised by the lack of new visits in the previous period.
Since October 2020 there has been a new reduction in accesses and new patients compared to the same months of 2019, due to subsequent restrictions on mobility and increasing economic uncertainty. In this period, which will probably last until the end of spring 2021, the general performance has settled a few points below the results of 2019 and, as regards implantology, this reduction is quite important (on average -9% implants placed between October 2020 and February 2021 considering the same months of the previous year).
Recovering from the emergency phase (and much will depend on how long the vaccination campaign will take), the workload will gradually increase, but for a few million families directly affected by the crisis -because of the impact on their job and financial situation- that mechanism of expenses hierarchization will be frequent, leaving part of the treatments still in difficulty. This is a phase whose duration is unknown, but observing the macroeconomic predictions made by relevant institutions, the clearest positive signs will probably occur in 2022.
Those who manage a dental practice must take this aspect into account, since they could face a slowdown in recovery during this year, always compared to 2019, which is the reference year. In any case, this is a phase that will not last particularly long, but it is essential that the financial system of the clinic leaves room for a possibly extended resistance.
The procrastination of dental services for over a year generates a huge “lung” of treatments that are finally performed over a long period of time (even years), as families recover an acceptable economic situation, trust in the future and, in part, in the event that the oral condition does not worsen in terms of urgency (as anticipated, this phenomenon has already been documented in the two-year period 2014-2015). It is therefore very likely to witness an expansive cycle which, like after the “Great Recession”, could last for at least a couple of years, with undoubted advantages for those dental practices which will be able to plan their business in an entrepreneurial way, combining trust -that I often mention as a fundamental ingredient to overcome this crisis- and financial planning/control capacity, not to forget the strategic vision contributing to a successful value proposition.
There are no clear forecasts on what the health situation, social dynamics and economic weight of the different sectors will be in the endemic period.
Certainly, we cannot fall into the error of believing that the “new normal” is a return to the conditions prior to Covid-19. We are facing a radical transformation, thanks to which some fundamentals of the social organization and economic system will undergo profound changes. We all hope this evolution moves towards an improvement in life quality for an increasingly large part of the population.
In the new situation of normality, the demand for dental treatments could slow down its development following the physiological rebound resulting from the treatments procrastination (as happened in the three-year period 2017-2019). In actual fact, this may lead to what we indicate in the chart as baseline, which represents the level of demand we would probably have had without the impact of the pandemic.
Anyway, those who have worked well in recent years, investing in clinical skills, facilities, technologies, training, and entrepreneurial management, will probably find themselves in a more prosperous situation than the one in which they were before this shocking health catastrophe.