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Advocacy in Action: A Champion for Teledentistry in Texas

Yashashri Urankar, DDS and chief dental officer at Community Health Centers of South Central Texas, is a 2021 DentaQuest Health Equity Hero

Yashashri Urankar, DDS, began the summer in an unusual way for a dentist: testifying on the floor of the Texas House of Representatives. She was there to continue her work fighting for access to oral health care and championing teledentistry.

As chief dental officer at the Community Health Centers South Central Texas (CHCSCT), Urankar experienced firsthand the challenges of providing oral health care treatments to patients during COVID-19. And it motivated her to advocate for change.

“When the pandemic hit, we were told that the dental department would have to be shut down indefinitely due to initial concerns surrounding the aerosol-generating nature of many dental procedures and the ability to maintain CDC-declared social distancing guidelines,” Urankar says.

During that time, telemedicine played a major role in continuing doctors’ visits and behavioral health appointments for the more than 20,000 patients at the CHCSCT. But while millions of dental patients across the country turned to teledentistry, virtual trips to the dentist’s office were not allowed under Texas state law.

“Without the teledentistry option, there was no dental care available to the community. Our patients would have to visit the ER in order to mitigate any pain.”

It’s reflective of a bigger problem. Each year in the United States, there are approximately two million hospital emergency department visits for nontraumatic dental problems, and most of these visits are for oral health needs that could have been addressed at a dental office. In fact, research indicates that nearly 79% of these visits could be addressed in a dental office.

Determined to get her community the care it needed, Urankar jumped into action. She started filling gaps to access in oral health care by partnering with local emergency departments and urgent care centers to ensure continuation of care for patients most in need. These partnerships proved to be critical for patients, as well as Urankar’s staff.

“Vulnerable, underserved patients in our community were able to get the most-needed urgent care—extractions of actively infected teeth—and staff members retained jobs,” Urankar said. “These partnerships allowed ER department staff to focus on critically ill COVID-19 patients.”

But Urankar didn’t stop there. She understood that teledentistry is a critical tool to help close the access gap and tear down barriers that prevent her patients from receiving care during the pandemic and beyond.

Across seven of CHCSCT’s eight federally qualified health centers, more than 60% of its patient population is uninsured while the rest is covered by Medicaid. Nearly all of its patients come from underserved communities, such as Black, Brown and rural populations, who often experience structural barriers to traditional oral health care due to factors including lack of paid-time off, transportation or a sufficient number of providers within a reasonable distance. In fact, three in four patients have experienced an obstacle in oral health care and 56 million Americans live in an area with a shortage of dental professionals.

Teledentistry offers one of the best solutions to mitigating this gap and making dental care possible in situations where it would otherwise be a struggle—especially during a pandemic.

The integration of teledentistry into regular practice methods isn’t only an innovative approach to providing care, but also a welcome one. Survey data released in June 2020 revealed that 86 percent of patients would recommend teledentistry services to others. And, respondents were confident in the potential of teledentistry to meet oral health care needs. Specifically, people of color and lower-income respondents, populations that are disproportionately impacted by structural barriers to care, were more likely to report that teledentistry would improve their access to care.

This is what brought Urankar to the Texas Statehouse to advocate for the authorization of teledentistry in Texas—and she made a difference. In June, Texas Governor Greg Abbot signed HB 2056 into law, making teledentistry services available to patients throughout Texas. Urankar’s advocacy work and testimony were critical in the effort to pass this legislation.

Now, with the bill signed into law, Urankar is excited about the impact teledentistry will have on oral health care in Texas.

This is a huge step forward in reducing the disparities of oral health care access in the state.”

Yashashri Urankar is a 2021 DentaQuest Health Equity Hero. With her award, she is supporting Gajanan Maharaj America Devotees Parivar and Central Texas Food Bank with her Health Equity Hero donation.