Since the early 2000s, dental researchers and educators have touted the benefits of teledentistry, especially for reaching rural populations, helping to plan treatments for busy people, and for determining when an office visit is necessary. An article in the September edition of Diabetes and Metabolic Syndrome highlights the ways that teledentistry has been used to reach vulnerable populations during the global pandemic, and how the benefits of teledentistry may make it more popular in the future, even as the world returns to normal.
But what is teledentistry? Industry professionals mean many different things when they use the term, but at its core teledentistry means delivering dental services over a distance. This can involve a patient communicating with a dentist using pictures and texts, a hygienist in one office communicating with a dentist or medical doctor who is not in the room with the patient, or a tech traveling to an onsite location and performing exams and collecting images that will later be reviewed by the dentist. The one trait that all these situations have in common is that they use technology to increase the reach and flexibility of a dental practitioner. As dentists and patients have been forced to use teledentistry during the COVID lockdowns, they’ve learned how useful and humane teledentistry can be.
Teledentistry in Nursing Homes
One of the most important applications for teledentistry involves nursing home patients. Nursing homes house an extraordinarily vulnerable population. They need excellent dental care to maintain their whole-body health, but trips to the dentist can be painful or dangerous, especially for patients who have disabilities or live in a memory care unit.
Before the pandemic, many dentists would take their teams into the nursing home on a regular basis to provide care. However, COVID-19 means that outside visitors and medical teams are limited. After all, a single case of COVID-19 in a nursing home can quickly lead to a major outbreak and many deaths. How, then, can we ensure that these patients receive proper, and often life-saving, dental care?
A 2017 study published in The Journal of the American Medical Directors Association found that having nursing home staff take digital images that were then shared with a dentist produced the same level of diagnosis and care as having the dentist examine and screen patients in person. In the current crisis, nursing home employees could take the images, and then only patients who actually needed dental care would have to risk exposure to dental teams, either in the office or in the nursing home. Teledentistry can decrease the chances that our most vulnerable patients will be exposed to COVID-19 during dental care.
Teledentistry in the Rural Dental Practice
Teledentistry also offers benefits for dental practices in rural areas. In many parts of the country, patients must travel great distances for consultations with specialists, often losing a full day of work for a consult which may or may not result in treatment. Or, in some rural areas, even general dentists may be in short supply. Teledentistry can bridge geographic gaps. In areas where there aren’t general dentists, a hygienist can perform routine care while allowing the supervising dentist access by web-conference. This allows the dentist to request specific camera views and meet with the patient from a central location while hygienists serve far-flung communities.
In areas where a rural practice may have a general dentist in residence but lack access to specialists, web conferencing applications can allow the specialist to consult with patients at a local office. Then patients only need to make the drive to the urban center for actual procedures. The time and gas savings can increase case acceptance since less time off work means that the treatment is less expensive overall.
Coronavirus has presented many challenges to the dental industry, but if there’s a silver lining to the pandemic it may be that more practitioners have learned the benefits of teledentistry, especially for vulnerable, isolated, or busy patients.