What Happens When a Dentist Embraces Teledentistry
When Dr. Ritika Chandra took a continuing education class about teledentistry in 2019 as part of the National Network for Oral Health Access (NNOHA) Conference, she thought it was interesting but didn’t give it much additional thought. She had no idea that in a few short months, teledentistry would completely transform her practice — and the dental industry — because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Back in March, Seattle was the epicenter of the pandemic and things were getting crazy,” Chandra says. “Elective care was shut down and people were flooding emergency rooms for dental care. We needed a solution and we needed it quickly.”
As a dentist at the Community Health Center of Snohomish County in Washington, Chandra was quick to embrace teledentistry as a way to provide critical care and a connection to patients during the pandemic. Now, more than half a year later and still on the screen, Chandra has identified several short- and long-term benefits of teledentistry that she didn’t foresee back in March.
Finding a Fast Solution
The pandemic quickly exacerbated gaps in access to care. At Chandra’s practice, where 75% of her patients are on Medicaid or are medically compromised, this was especially true. It’s also why she moved so quickly to embrace teledentistry to help bridge the gap.
And it worked. Really well.
“We found we became much more attuned to the symptoms patients are having,” Chandra says. “Ninety percent of the time, we were spot on with diagnoses, then the patient would just come in for the procedure if needed.”
Instead of flooding the ER, patients were able to see Chandra and other dentists at the organization via teledentistry tools. They asked questions and got individualized answers about their health. It kept patients safe while still allowing them to keep up with their oral health, and providers were still able to emphasize preventive care and continue relationships with patients during an extremely prolonged and difficult time.
Helping to Humanize Dentistry
One of the more unexpected outcomes of using teledentistry, says Chandra, is that it helped dentists connect with their patients on a more human level.
“Dentistry can be a scary environment and it humanizes it a little bit when you see your dentist without their white coat, mask and PPE,” Chandra says. “It gives you a chance to develop trust and a better connection before a patient comes in for any procedure.”
Humanizing the process has created a more comfortable environment for patients to ask questions and for providers like Chandra to explain the new treatment and infection control protocols that patients will see as a result of the pandemic.
Chandra says it has also helped her and her peers think beyond the traditional, procedural approach to dental care. Even as many COVID-related restrictions have eased and most practices have reopened, providers continue to embrace teledentistry viewing it as a valuable complement to in-person care.
“COVID created an environment where dentists needed to reinforce the importance of preventative dentistry,” Chandra says. “Change can be hard. I think it was hard for some people to move away from strictly procedural care. But it’s created an opportunity to really look at the way we do things and how we can improve. Teledentistry, with preventive care, is the future.”
10 Years ... in 10 Months
While some providers may have been initially hesitant to adopt teledentistry into their practice, Chandra is a true believer in its value — so much so that she has been training other providers on how to get the most out of it in their own practices, as well as continuing to explore innovative new ways to use the tool herself.
“For new patients, we’ve started doing teledentistry consults to address immediate needs,” she says. “We talk about everything else they need, in a more personal manner, which makes it less scary for people and more approachable when they do come in for treatment.”
When the health center received a COVID-related grant from a local organization, Chandra was tasked with developing a preventive strategy to help patients who were unable to come to the dentist. She launched a series of virtual classes on family oral hygiene to teach families with young children how to take care of their oral health. Her team sent oral hygiene kits to patients’ homes with toothbrushes, toothpaste, and floss and taught kids how to use them via teledentistry.
“The idea came about because I started incorporating this into my virtual calls with patients who had high caries risk or severe dry mouth due to chemotherapy and other high-risk categories. Many times, I found that the whole family would benefit — so, when appropriate, we started doing these as family oral health sessions and including props for the kids. Now, many of the dental hygienists and other dentists in the organization are using these kits successfully,” Chandra said.
She is energized by this and by the opportunities that teledentistry has presented for both patients and providers. She says it has accelerated a new era in dentistry: “We’re now probably 10 years into the future when it comes to teledentistry.”
Dr. Ritika Chandra was recently named a 2020 DentaQuest Health Equity Hero for her work establishing a teledentistry program to treat at-risk patients during COVID-19.