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The value teledentistry visits bring to dentists and their patients

Dec. 10, 2021
Daniel W. Croley, DMD, says teledentistry has inherent value as we continue to traverse the COVID-19 pandemic and its virus variants. He explains the why and how here.

It’s no surprise that the pandemic accelerated the adoption of telehealth across the medical and dental spheres. As dental offices learned to navigate lockdown measures, extended safety protocols, and assuaged patients’ fears of becoming exposed to the virus via the dental office, virtual care has only scratched the surface of its potential in teledentistry. The market is expected to reach $2.6 billion by the end of the decade.1

A 2020 report by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found dental practices that set up telehealth services were able to remotely evaluate patients and develop recommendations, provide problem-focused and urgent care evaluations, offer pharmacological management, and follow up on emergency care.2

Despite historically not being widely adopted in the dental profession due to limits on reimbursements, state regulations, and the onus that dental care requires a patient to be present in the dental chair, teledentistry has inherent value as we continue to traverse the pandemic and its virus variants.

Related reading: A guide to teledentistry in the time of COVID-19

Intrinsic value in teledentistry

During the past 18 months, telehealth adoption has rapidly become instrumental in combating oral health-care disparities, while allowing dentists to provide patient-centric and value-based care. As dentists face the ever-changing conditions in 2021 and beyond, the need to continue to implement this tech-forward, hybrid approach to dentistry and recognize its ability to improve practice efficiency, enhance patient experience, and increase overall access to dental care may rise to the forefront as the market sees a need for this newer option.

Here are some of the ways teledentistry can bring value to your dental practice and your patients:

Aftercare: One valuable aspect of teledentistry is aftercare. For instance, a patient who had a tooth removed could use a teledentistry visit to make sure everything is healing well on follow-up. The added value to the dentist is reduced overhead since patients do not need to come in for their appointments, thus eliminating the need for setup and sterilization of rooms, chairs, and instruments. With a virtual consult, a dentist could easily ensure the patient is healing by using photos or a video connection. There’s no need for additional staff, room preparation, before-and-after sterilization, preparation, or cleanup.

The second opinion: Technology is such that pictures and videos can give us a good understanding of what patients need. One way teledentistry can benefit patients is by providing a second opinion. Rather than visiting a dental office, a patient can receive a second opinion virtually by forwarding all the notes, images, and x-rays and discussing the initial diagnosis and treatment plan to ensure that it’s the best option. This can be accomplished well without the patient ever stepping foot into the dental office.

Access to care: While most of us in the US have access to dental care, there are still rural regions of the country and global areas that are dental care deserts. Teledentistry is an excellent option for rural geographic areas without easy access to dental care and populations where patients must travel far by car or plane to seek care.

In addition, seniors who have transportation or ambulatory issues may benefit greatly from a virtual visit option. Caregivers or adult children can help oversee the technology for teledentistry by using a mobile phone or computer, which could help seniors know when they need in-person care and when they might be able to postpone it.

Related reading: Calculating your teledentistry ROI

Emergency care: Once teledentistry becomes more common, it has the potential to decrease emergency room (ER) visits for triaging dental problems. In an era of COVID and heightened awareness of the variants circulating, people often don’t want to go to ERs and be exposed to illnesses. Worse, the ER triages patients and usually recommends following up with their dentist. With teledentistry, a patient can have an emergency consult in a matter of minutes and be instructed on what to do. This can save them from long waits, the high cost of ER co-pays, and additional exposure to illness.

Fear and stress-related conditions: Fear is real for some patients. And anxiety about going to see a dentist is the reality for many people. Some individuals’ anxiety is even triggered by the sound of the drill or the smells in the dental office. While telehealth isn’t a replacement for a tactile or direct visual diagnosis, it is better than nothing for those who hesitate to come to the dentist at all.

In fact, a telehealth visit could give a fearful patient peace of mind. It can be a first step in getting patients comfortable with the dentist, building a rapport (virtually), and helping prepare them for a full in-person exam. Stress-related conditions such as bruxism or clenching are on the uptick since the pandemic began. An American Dental Association survey found 60% of dentists are seeing an increase in patients with clenching and grinding issues, suggesting pandemic-related stress may be the culprit.3 A teledentistry visit could help with diagnosing these stress-related dental conditions.

Kids’ visits: It’s important for kids to be seen by age one, not just for the health of their teeth and advice about oral care but also to check jaw development and the health of the gum tissue. But you can’t put kids in a taxi or Uber and send them off to the dentist. Parents must take time off work and take kids out of school or daycare. Many people don’t have the time off available or the ability to ensure kids are seen by the dentist at the appropriate times. One way to get a look at young children’s emerging teeth and their development is by having a virtual dental visit with the patient sitting on the parent’s lap.

Types of teledentistry

Setting up a teledentistry option in your practice is simple. There are two different types of virtual dental visits:

Synchronous: face-to-face, live interaction over a video call. The dentist can instruct the patient to put their finger in their mouth or shine a light on a tooth.

Asynchronous: involves taking a picture or a video and sending it to the dentist.

For the dental provider, teledentistry setup is minimal. You only need a laptop with a camera and a secure, HIPAA-compliant connection. You must document the virtual visit in the same manner as an in-person appointment. Once you’re ready for virtual visits, getting the word out to your patients is important. You can add the offering on your website, tell patients when they’re in the office, or even send out cards announcing the new teledentistry service and describing how patients can use it.

Solid home care is the foundation for a healthy mouth, not simply seeing the dentist. Virtual visits can help us improve oral health education and the overall oral health of our patient population. According to the National Institutes of Health, incorporating teledentistry into routine practice may be the wave of the future.4

As virtual dentistry continues to evolve, adopting it now will not only expand patient care options today but will also prepare you to take advantage of the technology solutions yet to be developed.  

References

  1. Teledentistry market forecast to 2027 - COVID-19 impact and global analysis by component (hardware and software & services); delivery mode (on-premise, and cloud-based); end user (patients, payers, providers, and others), and geography. Healthcare IT. The Insight Partners. January 2021. https://www.theinsightpartners.com/reports/teledentistry-market
  2. Kalenderian E, Xiao Y, Spallek H, Franklin A, Olsen G, Walji MF. Covid-19 and dentistry: challenges and opportunities for providing safe care. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. US Department of Health and Human Services. The PSNet Collection. August 7, 2020. https://psnet.ahrq.gov/primer/covid-19-and-dentistry-challenges-and-opportunities-providing-safe-care#47
  3. New survey finds stress-related dental conditions continue to increase. American Dental Association. March 2, 2021. https://www.ada.org/en/press-room/news-releases/2021-archives/march/new-survey-finds-stress-related-dental-conditions-continue-to-increase
  4. Ghai S. Teledentistry during COVID-19 pandemic. Diabetes Metab Syndr. 2020;14(5):933-935. doi:1016/j.dsx.2020.06.029

Editor's note: This article appeared in the print edition of December 2021 Dental Economics.

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