Benefits administrator blog from Delta Dental

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How COVID-19 brought challenges and solutions in dentistry for seniors

Times of crisis call for creative solutions, and that’s never been more evident than during the COVID-19 pandemic. Innovative dentists have sought to adapt many aspects of their practices, but especially those involving the most vulnerable segment of our population: older adults.

New challenges for seniors’ oral health

For many seniors, even before the advent of COVID-19, physical limitations, systemic disease, cognitive decline and dependence on caregivers could all lead to an overall decline in oral health. What’s more, the pandemic worsened many of these same problems while presenting new ones.

“COVID-19 laid bare weaknesses in our elder care system,” said moderator Stephen K. Shuman, DDS, MS, in a webinar on pandemic-related disruptions in oral health care hosted by the Gerontological Society of America.

Some of the challenges in oral health care for seniors during the pandemic have included:

  • Reduced access. Early in the pandemic, many dentists’ offices shuttered, and even when they reopened, fear of COVID-19 led many older adults to delay or entirely forego visits to the dentist’s office. Nearly half of U.S. adults reported delaying dental care due to the COVID-19 pandemic during the spring of 2020, and the increased risk posed by COVID-19 to seniors likely exacerbated the problem among older adults.
  • Reduced care. In long-term care facilities, daily brushing, flossing and other routine care tasks were sometimes put on the back burner as COVID-19 diverted staff members to provide more urgent care to those affected or at risk. Proper oral care could also be challenged by staff members’ fears about the potential for oral transmission of COVID-19. Staffing shortages in facilities and on oral care teams made the situation worse. Georgia and Minnesota reported staffing shortages in long-term care facilities of more than 25% during the pandemic, and a recent poll from the ADA Health Policy Institute found that more than 80% of owner dentists who are currently hiring consider recruitment of dental hygienists and assistants to be extremely or very challenging at this time.
  • Psychosocial problems. The loneliness, anxiety and depression caused by shelter-at-home orders could themselves worsen oral health among older Americans.

Solutions in oral health care for seniors during the pandemic

Just as the COVID-19 presented new problems, it also created potential for positive long-term change.

Teledentistry and teletriage

Through necessity, many dentists began refining techniques for the use of teledentistry and teletriage, using telecommunications technology to deliver health services and information.

Some companies began implementing or built up their existing “pandemic teledentistry.” Teams used cloud-based electronic health records and taught long-term care facility staff how to take useful images of patient mouths and send them to centrally located dentists.

At the height of the pandemic, 24.8% of responding dentists reported they were conducting remote problem-focused evaluations through virtual technology or telecommunications, according to polling from the American Dental Association’s Health Policy Institute.

Some innovative dentists used what they referred to as assisted, or guided, oral hygiene during the pandemic. They used the latest audio and video technology to guide a patient or caregiver as they carried out oral hygiene on a regularly scheduled basis.

Mobile dentistry

While the pandemic restricted mobile care in some cases, its primary advantage of reducing the need to transport at-risk seniors also caused it to emerge as another possible solution.

Many dentists were already accustomed to setting up mobile units in long-term care facilities even before the pandemic. Mobile dentistry helps reduce the potential for stress and confusion caused by moving older patients or those with dementia.  With the latest mobile equipment deployed to long-term care facilities, dentists are able to perform simple extractions, restorative work and more in a timely manner. As in many dental offices, mobile units often add an external dental suction that uses ultraviolet light and filters to remove pathogens from the air.

How to support your senior employees and relatives through the pandemic

COVID-19 presented extraordinary challenges to your senior employees, retirees and those caring for elderly relatives. The new solutions that helped maintain health care for older adults during the pandemic are likely here to stay.

To support your senior employees throughout the pandemic:

  • Communicate. Oral health care should never be placed on the back burner, and maintaining good communication with your employees is crucial to emphasize the importance of oral health. As always, keep in mind the systemic relationship between oral health and overall well-being. Use email campaigns, social media and other reminders to encourage the maintenance of oral hygiene routines among your senior employees throughout the pandemic.
  • Discuss new approaches. Teledentistry can now connect older adults with oral health care providers when they can’t visit a dental clinic or if there are restrictions on dental providers visiting residential facilities. The option is available at no added cost under Delta Dental PPO™ and Delta Dental Premier® plans, so discuss teledentistry with your employees if you think it might be right for them.

Tips for remote work a year into the pandemic

When coronavirus hit, many offices sprang into action and adapted to remote working environments. As we settle into our second year of living with a pandemic, there’s still much room for improvement in our day-to-day work lives. If you or your employees are working from home, consider sharing these tips to keep them in top mental and physical shape.

Create boundaries

When the lines between home and office blur, maintaining a proper work/life balance can be a challenge. Setting boundaries is important to both getting work done and knowing when the workday is done.

  • Separate your working and living spaces. While you likely didn’t choose your home based on the idea that you’d be working from it daily, carving out a space that’s dedicated to work is a great way to stay on task. Working from bed or a couch can muddle the idea of your home as your sanctuary. Find a corner where you can set up a desk and use it as your office.
  • Stay on schedule. Without a train to catch or traffic to beat, workers have gained back some of their valuable time. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average American worker gained more than half an hour of leisure time in 2020. While it may be tempting to stay online past normal working hours, burnout is real and affected more than two thirds of the remote workforce last year. One report even found that people worked an average of 26 extra hours a month during the pandemic. For your mental health, disconnecting is vital. Set a schedule and stick to it to protect your personal time.
  • Limit distractions. Setting boundaries goes both ways. Just as you should protect your personal space and time, you should also remember when you’re on company time. Sharing your space with family and roommates can invite limitless distractions. If you can’t physically close a door behind you, communicate your working hours with the people you live with and set strict time limits for work and breaks. 

Set routines

In uncertain times, a little routine can go a long way. Creating a routine, the way you would if you were going into an office every day, helps give your day structure and can lower stress and encourage focus.  

  • Dress professionally. Yes, one of the perks from working from home has been escaping from the confines of structured suits and other constrictive workwear for cozy sweatpants. While you should absolutely be comfortable while you work, our brains can form a Pavlovian response to these kinds of clothes. Putting on professional attire is a great way to tell your brain that it’s time to buckle down and tackle the to-do list.
  • Build a routine. Routines give us a sense of structure, accomplishment and well-being. Give yourself time before work to savor coffee, do some journaling, read or go for a jog. If you’re not an early bird, reward yourself after work with some quiet time or a favorite show.

Stay healthy

The American Psychological Association recently reported that 61% of Americans experienced “undesirable weight gain” during quarantine. If you picked up some bad habits in the past year, you’re far from alone. Luckily, there are little things you can do throughout the day to get back on track.

  • Take more meaningful breaks. By now, you’ve heard the importance of getting away from your computer screen a few times a day. If you walk away from your computer screen only to find yourself staring at your phone screen, find other ways to occupy that time. Go for a walk around the block or do a few yoga stretches.
  • Stay on top of your oral health. The American Dental Association reported that routine dental visits were down 20% last year. If you’ve been snacking at your computer, breaks are a great time to squeeze in an extra brushing or flossing to keep your mouth healthy and refreshed.
  • Invest in ergonomics. If you’re still working from an old dining room chair or using an old TV dinner tray for a desk, it’s time to upgrade — your body will thank you for it. Haphazard workstations and poor posture can wreak havoc on your body. It can even cause jaw pain. Proper ergonomics doesn’t need to equal expensive new furniture. Often, a few height adjustments can work wonders. Check out this checklist to adapt your workstation. 

Find the right fit for your employees with DentaQual ratings

How do your employee search for a new dentist? Consumers often rely on reviews to help make decisions, but subjective commentary isn’t always the most reliable way to find a health professional. Dental patients deserve reputable sources based on facts. That’s where DentaQual, a new feature of Delta Dental’s dentist directory, comes in.

DentaQual is a ratings system that relies on actual data — rather than opinions — to help your employees navigate their options with ease and give benefits administrators like you confidence in Delta Dental’s offerings.

How DentaQual ratings work

When your employees search Delta Dental’s dentist directory, they’ll notice one-to-five-star scores. These DentaQual ratings are based on statistical analysis of claims data and developed by P&R Dental Strategies, a neutral third party and research company with over 20 years of experience.

The reviews are based on:

  • Procedure success rate
  • Commitment to best practices
  • Value
  • Patient retention
  • Treatment recommendations

This fair and unbiased feedback can help your employees feel more confident about choosing a dentist.

P&R Dental Strategies isn’t funded by insurance companies and provides reviews only for dentists with enough data available to make an accurate assessment.

DentaQual and your employees

As of April 2021, Delta Dental PPO™, Delta Dental Premier® and select DeltaCare® USA dentists within our 15 enterprise states and the District of Columbia have DentaQual ratings in their directory listings. Delta Dental’s dentist directory aims to make finding a dentist as easy as possible. Now, along with languages spoken, office hours and other crucial information, members can see DentaQual’s objective evaluations.

Better yet, DentaQual automatically refreshes scores each month, so members can always rely on the accuracy of their dentist’s rating.

7 dangerous dental trends from TikTok

When it comes to bad dental advice on TikTok, the hits just keep on coming. After a much-publicized series of viral videos about do-it-yourself teeth filing, several new and equally horrifying dental trends have emerged on the social media platform.

While you might have hoped TikTokers would have learned their lesson after the tooth-filing debacle, apparently that was just the warm-up. Here are some of the newest and most widely viewed harmful dental trends on the social media platform right now.

Using household cleaning products to whiten teeth

Scrubbing teeth with an abrasive pad that contains sulfurous acid and formaldehyde might seem like an obviously bad idea, but at least one TikTok user disagrees.

In a (since deleted) video viewed more than 2.5 million times, TikTok user @theheatherdunn revealed that for the past two years, she’s used pieces of a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser, which the manufacturer advertises as having the “muscle to take on tough messes all around the house,” to whiten her teeth.

In the video, in which she also advised against using fluoride on teeth, Dunn said, “Yes, I am prepared for all the dentists that are going to come on here and be like, ‘Don’t do it — she’s crazy!’ I don’t care.”

Maybe you should, Heather?

Do-it-yourself orthodontics

In a video viewed 9.5 million times, a young woman wrapped her front teeth with several elastic hair ties, claiming she was going to close a gap between her front teeth in three days. She also posted a follow-up video showing off her alleged results. And just to drive the point home, she created a video mocking dentists who responded to her DIY braces videos in horror.

The dentists’ reaction was warranted. The practice shown in the video can restrict the blood flow to teeth, potentially changing their color or even leading to tooth loss. The elastic bands can also lead to gum inflammation or infection.

While the TikTok videos are new, this trend has been around for quite a while, as DIY braces also became a viral phenomenon on YouTube in 2015.

Making prosthetic teeth and partial dentures with art supplies

Another cringeworthy trend involves using InstaMorph beads, made from a polyester thermoplastic that can be heated and molded into various shapes, to repair or replace teeth.

TikTok user love86emily posted a video, which has almost 47,000 likes, showing how to mold a handful of the tiny choking hazards into a “tooth.” Another user’s video showing how to repair a chipped tooth with the beads, which aren’t certified food-safe by the FDA, has received 1.7 million views.

Creating “shark teeth” for crowns

One of the most destructive TikTok trends involves people filing their teeth into narrow pegs so that they can be fitted with crowns, or in some cases, what the subjects mistakenly believe are veneers. While dentists have pointed out in replies that veneers often require little or no prep, let alone grinding your teeth into nubs, these videos continue to appear frequently on the platform.

Gluing vampire fangs to teeth

For some, Halloween means going trick or treating, dressing up in costumes, and gluing fangs to their teeth with a cyanoacrylate adhesive, otherwise known as super glue or nail adhesive. Although it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a toxic permanent adhesive is both toxic and permanent, that hasn’t deterred the many TikTok users who have used the glue to get the perfect vampire grin.

But wait, there’s more!

Users have also recently posted videos in which they apply 3% hydrogen peroxide solution directly to their teeth to whiten them. Others have promoted flossing with human hair.

The general mindset of these DIY dental fans seems to be best summed up by user claudes244: “If you’re a dentist, don’t tell me this is wrong — spare me the grief. The damage has already been done.”

How can I protect my employees?

To help your employees and their children avoid the costly and potentially irreparable damage these TikTok dental tips can cause, consider taking these steps:

  • Email or text your employees, particularly the parents of teens, to alert them to these trends and warn them of the dangers.
  • Post information on your company’s social media about the danger of these fads and alternatives.
  • Remind employees that their dental benefits offer safe ways to fix imperfect smiles, such as cleanings and possibly orthodontics or professional teeth whitening.
  • Since cost savings is one of the appeals of these TikTok trends, remind employees that under most plans, cleanings and exams are available to them at low or no cost.

Dental fraud — what it is and how you can help fight it

Fraud accounts for an estimated 3% of the United States’ total spending on health care, according to the National Health Care Anti-Fraud Association. That may sound like a small percentage, but with dental spending in the United States projected to reach almost $200 billion by 2030, that means over $6 billion in dental fraud that year.

Dental fraud is “any crime where an individual receives insurance money for filing a false claim, inflating a claim or billing for services not rendered,” according to the American Dental Association. Fraud can take many forms, but it requires intent, deception and unlawful gain.

Fraud harms your business and your employees. It drives up the cost of coverage for you and your employees in the form of higher premiums. Every year, the average family in the United States spends an extra $400 to $700 on increased premiums because of fraud.

Common signs of fraud to watch out for

Because fraud requires intent and deception, there are signs to watch out for. Encourage employees to check their Explanation of Benefits statements and look out for dental offices that:

  • Submit claims for covered services when non-covered services are provided
  • Recommend unnecessary or expensive services when simple services will suffice (for example, recommending a crown when only a filling is necessary)
  • Report inaccurate treatments to the insurance company (for example, prophylaxis vs. periodontal maintenance)
  • Misrepresent dates of service to the insurance company
  • Fail to disclose insurance coverage to their patients
  • Refer patients to specialists when treatment is not needed

It’s entirely possible for dentists and staff to find themselves on the wrong side of the law after an attempt to help patients who might be seeking help with their coverage. Waiving coinsurance costs is one example of this. In other cases, it might be a simple oversight. Common mistakes considered fraud include:

  • Listing the incorrect treating dentist on a claim
  • Coding the wrong treatment (for example, prophylaxis vs. periodontal maintenance)
  • Altering dates of service

Fraud can also be perpetrated by dentists’ patients. Let employees know that the following actions are considered fraud.

  • Using another person’s ID or multiple IDs to obtain benefits
  • Requesting that dentists misreport dates to circumvent calendar year maximums or limitations
  • Misrepresenting available coverage to dental staff or asking them to misrepresent care to the insurance company (this includes concealing dual coverage)
  • Adding individuals to a policy who are not eligible dependents or family members

Finally, employers can find themselves on the wrong side of fraud law as well. Be sure to avoid:

  • Allowing ineligible people to enroll in coverage
  • Making inaccurate statements that can reduce workers’ compensation premiums. Such statements include misclassifying employees, underreporting employees, underreporting payroll, reporting full employees as independent contractors and misrepresenting the name under which your company does business.

What you can do to help protect yourself and employees

Fraud can happen at any point in the process of providing care, accepting payment and submitting claims. Dental offices with clear, consistently applied policies can help everyone play their part in fighting fraud. Here are some general tips that you can encourage employees to keep in mind as they choose their dentists.

  • Discuss coverage, fees and payment prior to the dentist providing services, especially for optional and non-covered services. This way employees will fully understand what their financial obligations are prior to accepting service.
  • For treatments over $300, request a pre-treatment estimate from dentists. This is a free service available to Delta Dental PPO™ and Delta Dental Premier® members. DeltaCare® USA members should review their benefit booklet for a list of covered services and applicable copayments.
  • Ask dentists if they have written anti-fraud policies and if their office staff has read and signed these policies.

To help your company avoid fraud, you can also:

  • Refer employees to the “Fight Fraud” flyer (PDF) as an educational aid
  • Implement a clearly defined anti-fraud policy and have employees sign it
  • Set up internal controls and segregate duties (for example, ensuring different sets of employees have access to plan assets and records, rather than putting one person in charge of everything)

What Delta Dental does to help prevent fraud

You don’t have to combat fraud on your own. We’re proud to be your partners in working to eliminate fraud at all levels and steps of the dental care process. What we do includes:

  • Educating our clients, members, dentists and employees about fraud detection and prevention
  • Conducting clinical patient examinations to ensure that provided services meet professional standards and were correctly submitted
  • Reviewing financial and treatment records to ensure contracts are followed
  • Reporting potential cases to state and federal law enforcement and cooperate with fraud investigations
  • Pursuing the recovery of funds when fraud is suspected
  • Terminating contracts when fraud is confirmed

If you suspect fraud, report it. Call Delta Dental’s Anti-Fraud Hotline at 800–526-1852. Provide this number to your employees and encourage them to do the same. Callers may remain anonymous if they choose.

Customer service — reimagined

Customer satisfaction is about more than products. To ensure that customers are truly satisfied, the customer service they receive must be as outstanding as the product they purchase.

To take the customer service experience to a new level, we’ve introduced CX Reimagined, a training program that transforms the relationship between our customers and representatives, creating a transaction that’s more empathetic, intuitive and satisfying than ever before.

After two years of development, design and implementation, more than 1,000 full-time Delta Dental Customer Operations employees, including agents, supervisors and leaders, are scheduled to complete CX Reimagined by October 2021.

Putting the customer in customer service

Delta Dental’s customer service had been effective ­— in 2020, agents answered 12.7 million calls and resolved 99% of issues on the first call. It needed to be something more, though, said Ben Sieke, Director of Talent Development & Learning.

“Initially, our biggest goal was efficiency: Let’s take as many calls as we can as quickly as we can,” Sieke said. “But there was opportunity for us to look at this differently. Not to move away from running an efficient business, obviously, but instead to put the customer front and center. Every time somebody calls in, there’s an opportunity for us to delight them.”

Sieke said that while his team briefly considered purchasing training from an outside vendor, they quickly realized that the only way to ensure that this new set of customer service standards could be achieved was to design the training in house.

“We said, let’s create a custom Delta Dental learning experience for our people,” Sieke said. “CX Reimagined training is specifically for our employees, and it feels that way. It’s designed so that it feels real and relevant to their jobs.”

Answering the questions customers didn’t ask

One of the main focuses of CX Reimagined is to develop soft skills that enable agents to interact more effectively and personably with customers, said Earl Parker, Delta Dental’s Vice President of Customer Operations. These skills include empathy, active listening and de-escalation.

“Far too often, we want to jump in and solve without really understanding the issue,” Parker said. “So part of the training speaks to how you actively listen, how you affirm what you’ve heard to make sure that you’re going to answer and solve for the right thing.”

Another aspect of the training is teaching agents how to ask probing questions, questions that require more than a “yes” or “no” answer and help agents discover underlying or additional issues customers have.

“If our agents answered only the question that was asked of them, they would miss an opportunity to answer the bigger question, to solve the bigger issue, the customer has,” Sieke said. “Being a bit more empathetic and curious enables us to solve the whole problem at once.”

And these soft skills set Delta Dental’s service apart for the customer, Parker said.

“That’s viewed as by the customer as going above and beyond, not just servicing. And I think that’s important if we want to truly enhance the experience,” Parker said.

The results are in

While the intent to do better is there, one question looms large: Did it work? Did the training objectively improve the customer experience? Based on early results, the answer appear to be yes.

Customers rate Delta Dental’s customer service based on two sets of criteria:

  • Net Promoter Score (NPS), which is based on a zero-to-10 ranking of how likely customers are to recommend Delta Dental’s customer service to others
  • Customer Satisfaction Score (CSAT), where customers rank the service they received on a one-to-15 scale

Since CX Reimagined was launched in July 2020, both these metrics have improved substantially, according to a recent study on the training’s impact. Also encouraging was that a performance increase was seen in all employees.

“What’s interesting is that the most dramatic improvements were among the lower performers, the agents who were struggling,” Sieke said. “If you weren’t good at this and were lacking these skills, you acquired them in training and now you’re doing a great job.”

This is only the beginning

For CX Reimagined, the end of this phase is just the first step in an ongoing journey, Parker said.

Among the next steps he envisions are an annual refresher training for agents and doing more to help agents serve the broker and benefits administrator communities.

Analyzing customer data more closely to understand issues completely is another goal.

“For instance, if we find that members with a certain plan option are generally more dissatisfied than members who have other plan options, then we need to look at the data to understand what’s wrong,” Parker said. “That way we can fix it so those members are happier with the product.”

And making customers happier through expert, friendly, proactive customer service is the goal of CX Reimagined.

“We want our employees to be fully engaged in helping our members and providers navigate Delta Dental,” Parker said. “We want them to be fully engaged in providing easy experiences for members and providers, and we want them to be fully equipped to provide these experiences.”

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