COVID-19 Puts Teledentistry In the Spotlight
Teledentistry adoption is growing thanks to its ability to increase access to oral health. Now, due to the novel coronavirus outbreak, it’s being thrust into the spotlight.
Teledentistry emerged in recent years as a promising tool to increase access to oral health care, particularly among underserved and rural populations. Its ability to create a more efficient way of providing care has pushed it to the forefront of the conversation today, as the oral health community grapples with how to support patients during this public health crisis. With mandatory social distancing and the American Dental Association’s recommendations against any non-emergency dental procedures, teledentistry has become a vital tool for providers and patients.
The Evolution of Teledentistry
The concept of teledentistry isn’t new – technology to provide dental care has actually been used in the US Army since 1994. But in recent years, it’s evolved to address a core problem in oral health: the significant gap in access to oral health care across our country.
More than 56 million Americans live in an area with a shortage of dental professionals. Teledentistry has helped bridge that gap, making access to dental care possible in situations where it would otherwise be a struggle. It’s been used effectively in rural and urban communities from California to Missouri, giving providers the flexibility they need to deliver care.
Providing Access During the COVID-19 Crisis
Amid this global pandemic, teledentistry has become not just a tool, but a lifeline for providers and patients. A recent report on teledentistry during the COVID-19 crisis from the DentaQuest Partnership on Oral Health Advancement details one of the most important reasons to use teledentistry right now - giving patients with an urgent dental need an opportunity to access care without having to go to a severely overburdened emergency department. It also allows seniors, people who are medically compromised, and other vulnerable populations to remain safely at home and receive virtual care.
COVID-19 makes the need to embrace teledentistry even more urgent. The DentaQuest Partnership report Fast-Tracking Teledentistry details how states can take steps now to address barriers to teledentistry adoption. Creating a supportive climate for teledentistry would help states ensure that a pandemic or other crisis does not cut off people’s access to care for days or weeks. One important step states can take to do that is increasing connectivity and access to broadband, so that all communities can benefit from telehealth.
Dental benefit companies are also moving quickly to ensure coverage and awareness of telehealth options among their members. DentaQuest has created both short- and long-term solutions for remote care, and the DentaQuest Partnership is providing support for teledentistry, including webinars and training modules for providers.
Teledentistry’s Impact on the Future of Oral Health
COVID-19 is the current example, but there are many other times of crisis in which telehealth can help avoid disruptions in care and protect resources at overwhelmed clinics and hospitals — hurricanes, wildfires, other natural disasters or terrorist attacks. Telehealth can bridge access to medical or dental services in communities with connectivity. And dental providers can use the remote format to consult with patients, triage their needs and offer limited services.
The challenges of accessing oral health care are not limited to during a crisis, and neither are the solutions. Teledentistry has been thrust into the spotlight right now as a tool to help stem the spread of coronavirus, but its use and impact will remain far longer. Teledentistry adoption and use now means people who otherwise would not have access to care can reach a dental provider. The more providers can connect with patients for healthy habits and regular preventive care, the less likely it is for patients to need urgent care or suffer from chronic diseases related to poor oral health.
Consistent and valued care can continue to be the standard, even when face-to-face contact isn’t an option. That’s a promising future for teledentistry and for oral health.