Digital Health

4 Reasons Why Teledentistry Will Help Change Oral Health

Dental care in the United States has been changing, gradually, in the last decade. Like the overall health care system, new treatments, new payment models, and new technologies have been shifting providers away from the surgical management of oral disease to a greater focus on prevention and health promotion.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country, and, by necessity, the industry stepped on the gas pedal. Questions became realities. Promising ideas became protocols. The shift accelerated.

And, now, the industry is faced with a question: What will the new future of care look like in—and beyond—the dental chair in a still uncertain future?

Teledentistry will be part of that answer.

Teledentistry is a virtual set of tools that allows for electronic communication and delivery of health services. It promotes equitable access to oral health care and represents an expansion of existing care, not a new form of care. Whether provided within a dental office, in a community setting, or from a patient’s home, the tools enable care and communication when patients are not or cannot be seen in a traditional office setting with a dentist present.

Examples of Teledentistry During the Pandemic

Teledentistry took many different forms during the pandemic, guided by a creative, diverse dental workforce. Community-based programs, health centers, health systems, private practices, and others made use of teledentistry to provide care to patients in various settings to reduce barriers to care. For example:

  • In Oregon, a rural teledentistry program enabled dental hygienists to assess schoolchildren’s mouths visually, chart likely areas of tooth decay, take pictures and X-rays of a child’s mouth, and use laptops to transmit this information to a dentist in another location who reviewed these materials and developed a treatment plan for each participating child.
  • In California’s Virtual Dental Home (VDH) model, specially trained dental hygienists and assistants collect dental records and provide preventive care for patients in schools, Head Start programs, and nursing homes. Information was then sent through a secure telehealth system to a dentist at a clinic or dental office who determined a diagnosis and developed a dental treatment plan.
  • In Missouri, private and public health dentists worked with dental hygienists under general supervision to provide extended hours and satellite office coverage using teledentistry when the dentist was out of the office. In this example, a dental hygienist used asynchronous teledentistry to capture all needed diagnostic data to establish new patients for examinations and to maintain the health of existing patients.

This dental care delivery model is especially useful, as it helps to create equity in oral health by extending the availability of dental care outside of the constraints of the dentist’s availability. 

Looking to the Future of Teledentistry

While its use has expanded dramatically during the pandemic, teledentistry should continue to serve as a tool to improve access to care and health outcomes even after the pandemic ends. It can also provide patients with an opportunity for a greater role and voice in their own care.

So why is teledentistry here to stay?

  1. Teledentistry helps states weather crises. Whether in the midst of an infectious disease outbreak or natural disaster, teledentistry will help ensure that people do not lose access to care. In a survey from August 2020, for example, nearly a quarter of dental providers were seeing patients via telehealth platforms. Teledentistry allows people to receive care in compliance with social distancing guidelines and reduces the number of visits to hospital emergency departments (EDs), which can easily be overwhelmed during a crisis. 
  2. Teledentistry can help reduce costs. In one study in 2018, patients with a teledentistry visit cost 10% less to treat than patients who didn’t use teledentistry. Teledentistry can also keep patients out of the emergency department (ED), where care generally costs more and focuses on managing pain and infections rather than addressing the underlying oral health condition. Because EDs often lack systems for oral health provider referrals, many patients return to the ED for the same problem.
  3. Teledentistry expands access to care.Adults benefit from teledentistry models that offer them flexible options for receiving care, consultations with dental providers, and educational information about their oral health. Providing more Americans with access to dental services and oral health education leads to healthier mouths, which, in turn, strengthens overall health.
  4. Patients are embracing teledentistry. Another recent CareQuest Institute survey demonstrates that patients are satisfied with their teledentistry experiences and appreciate the flexibility it offers, enabling them to secure oral health services without the need for a face-to-face appointment. In fact, 86% of patients said they were satisfied with their overall teledentistry experience and would recommend teledentistry to another person.

To learn more, visit the CareQuest Institute teledentistry resource page

The editorial staff had no role in this post's creation.