Lessons from the Pandemic: What COVID-19 Is Teaching Us About Teledentistry
With Todd Cruse, President, DentaQuest Care Group and Kirill Zaydenman, Vice President Innovation, DentaQuest
While it’s still too early to be definitive, telehealth opportunities in dentistry may be significant, especially when you look at increased access to care, greater prevention and continuity of care. But it’s challenging for many people to initially understand the value of teledentistry — or even what exactly a telehealth appointment in dentistry looks like. As telehealth use soared amid COVID-19, we learned about gaps in knowledge — among patients, providers, policymakers alike — and opportunities to explore using teledentistry not only for no-contact live care, but also complementary to traditional dental care.
So, what has COVID-19 taught us about people’s understanding of teledentistry? And what are we doing with what we learned?
Cruse: Teledentistry presents a new way for us to think about oral health care. Traditionally, dentistry is viewed as something done to you, not with you. Engaging via telehealth is a deviation from that, requiring us to think from a different perspective operationally, clinically, and when engaging patients and providers. So, while the pandemic has accelerated interest in and adoption of teledentistry, we have a long way to go to help people understand the capabilities and value. We’re seeing accelerated adoption among providers likely because they recognize virtual modes of communication are the only means to maintain patient relationships and continuity of care while fears and stay-at-home orders persist.
Zaydenman: We can leverage what we’ve learned to accelerate necessary changes. Adoption of new modes of telecommunication in dentistry, whether among providers, or between providers and patients, was overdue. This crisis has helped to highlight and accelerate progress in this domain. We’re seeing greater interest in and adoption of teledentistry across the industry. Consumers and providers appear to be open to it and appreciate the flexibility it offers to secure oral health services without leaving their homes.
What gaps is teledentistry helping to bridge during the pandemic?
Zaydenman: Teledentistry can benefit a broad range of populations, including Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries, the uninsured, underserved and rural populations, people with urgent dental care needs, and people who fear going to the dentist. It also bridges critical gaps in access to care, such as expanding limited capacity within a practice, enabling emergency dental consults or preventive hygiene education without barriers to travel, and improving patient referrals thanks to provider-to-provider consultations. When further industrialized and more broadly adopted, teledentistry will have wider implications for both patient outcomes and care-delivery capacity.
Cruse: During the pandemic, many providers have focused on synchronous teledentistry applications, which include real-time, live audio and video. But we can’t lose sight of the importance and promise of the asynchronous approach. Asynchronous teledentistry enables a dental professional in the field to send patient records for review to a dentist located anywhere. This can result in a more comprehensive model of care, as patient care will no longer be dependent on dentists’ time and chair time alone. That said, it’s still too soon to have meaningful data. We need enough time to pass for trends to develop and to analyze data from a variety of sources. And it will be important to look at data from both sides of the patient and provider journeys over time.
What are we learning about increasing adoption and expanding teledentistry applications?
Cruse: We know that improving and standardizing the policy environment to support adoption and expansion of teledentistry nationwide is critical. And we’re seeing more favorable pandemic-related regulatory changes to enable telehealth and teledentistry at the federal, state and commercial market levels. Still, only about one half of the states have a regulatory environment that could be considered somewhat teledentistry-friendly.
We need to make sure the positive movements we’ve seen stick post-pandemic and expand to other jurisdictions. And we need more clarity around:
- which care sites and providers can use teledentistry;
- which populations have access to teledentistry;
- which services are covered and at what reimbursement level;
- the member benefits and out of pocket expenses; and
- related standards such as HIPAA compliance to protect patients.
Zaydenman: While these are early days for teledentistry, there is no question that it will be an important part of dentistry’s “new normal.” However, it would be premature to claim that we know which applications, use cases and models of care produce the best results and should be scaled. We should embrace a period of learning and experimentation with the goal of leveraging this ubiquitous technology to increase access, improve equity and accelerate medical-dental integration.
While virtual-only dental care has important limitations, we now know it has the potential to greatly improve dentistry’s resiliency to continue uninterrupted care in the event of a second wave or in future pandemics. If today’s trends hold, teledentistry could significantly expand oral care access to previously underserved populations, help prioritize dental chair time for the highest-risk patients and keep low-risk patients healthy and out of the dental chair.
For more information, visit https://www.dentaquest.com/teledentistry/.
Read other blogs in our Lessons from the Pandemic series.
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