Teledentistry: Bringing Oral Care to You
By Dr. Rob Compton, DDS, President, DentaQuest Institute, and Chief Dental Officer, DentaQuest
Telemedicine, telehealth, teledentistry? Billboards are talking about the first two, advertisements are featuring them, and commercials are promoting them. Virtual health care is here, if only in its early stages. Gone are the days when seeking medical care automatically equated to travel and missed school or work. Providers and patients alike want and now can more easily access necessary, quality care virtually.
But what does an age of virtual health mean for oral health care? That third word: teledentistry.
Though largely preventable, dental caries, also known as tooth decay, remains the most common chronic disease of children ages 6 to 11 and adolescents ages 12 to 19. But the damage doesn’t stop there. Roughly 90 percent of adults over the age of 20 show some degree of tooth decay.
Untreated tooth decay can lead to other serious and long-lasting complications, including bodily infections and heart disease. This is why teledentistry is such a unique and important opportunity to improve patient care, dentists’ reach, and the oral health of all.
What better way to improve access for underserved communities than to go straight to the person? Through the use of teledentistry, members of the dental team (namely dental hygienists and assistants) are traveling to schools, community centers and nursing homes to perform routine check-ups with virtual oversight from a remote dentist.
School-based oral health screenings, routine check-ups, educational programs, and delivery of preventive care are proven methods for setting kids and adults up for success. An established relationship between a child and a dental care provider leads to:
- Improved oral health habits
- A link to the child’s family members, who otherwise may not have access to care
- Better overall health for both the child and the community at large
As part of this demonstration by the Pacific Center for Special Care at the University of the Pacific Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry (Pacific), hygienists and assistants perform routine exams and certain services with supervision by a remote dentist responsible for setting the appropriate treatment plan. Two thirds of those served by the VDH pilots were able to receive all of their care in community settings.
In its first three years, the demonstration program will bring care to 20 communities and benefit nearly 20,000 children and adults across the state.
For every dollar spent on preventive dental services, an estimated $50 is saved on more expensive and complicated procedures, according to California Dental Association President Dr. James Stephens, who spoke about this program during a recent PBS interview.
That cost savings statistic is a great example of what states can achieve when they support preventive care and expand access to dental care. Demonstration programs are already indicating that wider adoption of models like the Virtual Dental Home will continue to break down barriers to access, ultimately resulting in more cost-effective and prevention-focused dental care. The next step for California is to work with the oral health community to encourage wider adoption of the VDH model.
This model for delivering care in the community also allows dentists to fill valuable chair time with patients in need of more comprehensive restorative services at the same time that their dental team is out in the community providing routine preventive care.
We all look forward to a future where everyone has access to all critical services, regardless of where they live. Well, that future begins now. Virtual health care is here, and is ready to bring providers to you. Let’s all work together to make this a reality.