Under today’s strict stay-at-home orders, a visit to the doctor’s office is not only a risky affair, it’s almost impossible, as most practices have temporarily closed for non-urgent care. This new reality has created timely attention for telehealth, including teledentistry, which enables patients to connect with dentists and other oral health providers virtually.
While telehealth isn’t new – and actually dates back to the 1960s – its adoption has grown in recent weeks to facilitate patient screening, communication and triage that otherwise would have to wait until after the pandemic. And, while virtual care is growing right now, many people still don’t understand teledentistry. We need greater awareness and more education about the types of care, tools and technologies, benefits, and barriers associated with teledentistry. In this post, I’ll review how patients benefit from teledentistry, how it can improve access to care during the current crisis, and the way this technology will change the future of oral health.
First, what is teledentistry?
Teledentistry is a subset of telehealth that encompasses a variety of oral health services and public health via information and communication technologies to facilitate the diagnosis, consultation, treatment, education, care management, and self-management of patients’ health care virtually. Teledentistry facilitates patient self-management and caregiver support for patients and includes synchronous interactions (teleconferencing) and asynchronous transfers (chat, images, store and forward).
Teledentistry not only connects oral health providers directly with patients, it can also link providers to other providers, dental and medical, to better coordinate care delivery. Patients can take advantage of teledentistry from the comfort of their homes, making it a vital tool both now and beyond the pandemic for, among others, homebound seniors, people living in rural communities, and high risk patients requiring ongoing monitoring.
How teledentistry became essential during COVID-19
Even before the pandemic, we knew that our nation’s oral health care system could and should be better. Many people have not been getting the dental care they need. More than 56 million Americans live in areas with a shortage of dental professionals. And 74 million don’t have dental insurance. Amid COVID-19, the situation has deteriorated.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Dental Association recommended postponement of non-emergency dental procedures, and according to a recent survey of registered voters, 35% of people say they’ve already missed a dental appointment due to the pandemic. Adding to the challenge, 26 million Americans have lost their jobs, and while it’s difficult to predict how many will lose their health coverage along the way, forecasts say 12 to 35 million people will lose employer-based insurance because of the pandemic.
But people still need care.
Telemedicine adoption is now in relative hyper-drive, as federal health officials continue urging providers to use telehealth where possible so limited resources in clinics and hospital emergency departments are reserved for care teams and patients with COVID-19 or other truly urgent conditions. Telehealth also keeps more people – especially seniors, the medically-compromised and other vulnerable populations – protected at home. Recent research shows March telehealth visits surged 50% and virtual health interactions are on pace to exceed one billion by the end of 2020.
Is teledentistry here to stay?
Yes. And it will become a bigger and more important part of oral health care in the coming weeks, months and years.
As the nation, states and industries look to the recovery period beyond the pandemic, DentaQuest is getting ready for what comes next. We know that teledentistry will continue to provide an important bridge between providers, patients and communities for many types of care and needs, from hands-on emergency care to preventive care and minimally invasive early interventions.
Beyond its ability to maintain access to oral health care during a crisis, industry leaders must also recognize and leverage teledentistry’s potential to improve access, equity, health outcomes and patient satisfaction in future everyday practice. Today’s patients want faster, more affordable, and more convenient health encounters, enabled by platforms and tools they already use. And that’s not going to change post-pandemic.
Of course, people will continue to need options for in-person care. But we’re in the perfect place in time to further advance innovative applications, protocols and delivery systems. While there is nothing good about this pandemic, it is forcing us to think differently, and reinforcing some of the things we already knew, including that technology and digital tools are vital to keep patients connected with their health care providers, and that using technology can help improve access and lower costs.
We’re working hard to expand our own teledentistry efforts, because we know an effective teledentistry platform will work beyond emergency situations and will enable care teams to work with patients to prevent diseases before they start. We’re also working to influence the regulatory and policy changes that will help expand teledentistry opportunities and improve the system overall.
For more, check out DentaQuest’s report on teledentistry during the COVID-19 crisis and listen to one of our recently recorded webinars.