Every day we see more and more technology implemented into our lives. It’s transforming how we shop, how we socialize, and even how we learn. But what about how we access healthcare?
The digital age is changing the way that people receive care by making it more accessible and convenient than ever before. Teledentistry is the latest addition to this revolutionary movement. While many are unfamiliar with the term, once you understand its benefits, you will likely ask your dental provider if they offer the service.
What is Teledentistry?
Teledentistry is the use of virtual meetings and live video conferencing to provide dental care. It is a relatively new practice that allows patients to see and be seen by a dentist through modern communication technology. This means that there are no longer any travel or scheduling issues for patients who live in rural areas.
The goal is to improve access to dental care for any individual or family living in a rural area or experiencing some other cause (disability, health, age, etc.) that negates their ability to see a dentist face to face. With so many advances in online communication and the mass adoption of these new services because of the global pandemic, it has become easier than ever to engage in teledentistry.
Is Teledentistry like Telemedicine?
The answer is no. While both share the concept of distance-based care, teledentistry has a specialized focus on the treatment of oral health disorders. Telemedicine is more of a generalized term. Like most things in healthcare, being specific is important for insurance providers, patient care, and the training/education of healthcare providers
This may seem like an arbitrary distinction at first glance, but it serves an important function. It allows doctors to more easily refer patients who might need additional care outside their area of expertise or beyond their office’s capabilities back to their regular dentist.
What are the Dentistry Perceptions of Teledentistry?
Dentists are concerned about the quality of care their patients are receiving. Dentistry is a highly specialized field, and it takes years of education and experience to master the art of oral health. There are questions about privacy and quality of care. As more people start using teledentistry (including remote video visits), there will be an increasing need for high-quality security measures to protect patient information from hackers and other cybercriminals.
There are still debates happening about legislating the regulation of teledentistry to ensure a patient is receiving the care they require. This is primarily around synchronous vs. asynchronous teledentistry. That would be real-time, interactive consultation through digital means compared to using captured images and videos to review materials.
Was Covid the Cause of Teledentistry?
The quick answer is no. Teledentistry was around before the global pandemic. However, it is important to point out that the repercussions of so many families not leaving their homes or canceling visits with healthcare providers led to the mass adaptation of online communication.
Dentists wanted to provide quality access to care via video conferencing, and this has only helped those patients who live in rural areas or may not usually get to a dentist for routine care.
The Benefits of Teledentistry
Teledentistry can be a game-changer for many people. It improves access to care, reduces costs, provides services to disadvantaged children, increases the availability of specialists and other professionals, and is less intimidating than visiting a traditional dental office. For people with disabilities or phobias about going to the dentist (or their own fear of needles), these advantages are particularly important. The benefits include:
Improve Access to Dental Care
Teledentistry can potentially improve access to dental care for patients in rural and urban areas with a limited number of dentists. It can also be used to connect specialized dental services to people with disabilities.
While there has been an excellent outreach of incoming dentists in Canada, the need to target farmland and rural areas with not as many services has only accelerated. Leveraging the power of teledentistry will improve the overall oral health of those who do not have the resources or time for in-person visits.
More Affordable Dental Care
Teledentistry reduces the cost of travel for patients and their families. With teledentistry, patients can have their dental care done remotely with a dentist in another location. There is no need for specialized tools or single-use equipment to be utilized during the visit. Everything is done remotely so a dentist can get a better impression of the care a patient may need and then offer advice and diagnosis for further steps.
Targeting Disadvantaged Children
Teledentistry's services also extend to disadvantaged children. A recent study showed that children with disabilities face a higher risk of developing chronic health problems than their non-disabled peers. They are also less likely to receive proper dental care, putting them at risk for more severe oral hygiene issues later in life. Teledentistry can help these kids by giving them access to high-quality dental care when they're young. These preventative measures can be and should be taken before it's too late.
Greater Insight from Specialists
Dental care is all about the patient experience, which includes accessibility. There are many times when a dentist may not have the specialist he or she feels would be ideal for the patient’s case. This could be due to availability, location, or even financial reasons. However, teledentistry allows dentists to connect with specialists who can then offer their opinion and treatment plans via video conference.
This gives patients more options and flexibility in obtaining the best possible care they need while also saving them time and money on travel costs and missed workdays by having appointments done remotely through video conferencing.
Easing Fear & Stress
Visiting a dentist online is less intimidating than sitting in a dentist’s chair. Teledentistry delivers a level of comfort and convenience that traditional dental offices can't offer. It's also less scary for children, who are often afraid of dental visits because it involves getting poked and prodded with sharp objects. Teledentistry removes all these fears by making procedures seem more like video games than medical visits.
Greater Access for Disabled Patients
Dentists can provide care for people with disabilities and the elderly in a way that is more accessible for them. The ability to deliver care remotely through video conferencing is one of the most significant benefits of teledentistry. It gives people with different needs better access to dental providers. For example, video conferencing allows patients who are in wheelchairs or have other mobility issues an opportunity to see the dentist without having to leave their homes.
Easy to Schedule
If a patient has an oral emergency during their shift at work, they can schedule an appointment immediately after work rather than having to wait until Monday morning when they have time off from work.
Teledentistry opens up time outside the typical 9-5 banking hours of the work week. It enables many full-time and professional workers to get routine checkups. The more access this provides, the greater the impact on lowering overall dental needs because everyone is getting preventative care.
Better for the Dental Practice
Another benefit of teledentistry is that it frees up your dentist’s time. Dentists can spend more time with patients, more time on clinical work, more time on education, and more time on research. They can also use their freed-up time to advocate for new patient access models and technologies.
With the right technology in place and a clear understanding of what you want from your dental practice, you can be sure that each visit will be productive for both you as well as your dentist or hygienist.
Elevating Oral Hygiene Awareness
An often overlooked benefit of teledentistry is that when you improve access to dental care, you also enhance oral hygiene education. With a broader audience of patients to serve, there is a greater opportunity to educate those that may be misinformed or not have any idea of best practices for routine maintenance and health.
Education has always been the silver bullet to improving a community. That should be the same for any topic, including elevating the overall oral hygiene of a population because more people are able to get their questions answered and instructed on the best practices available.
What are the Challenges of Teledentistry?
As with any new technology, there are a few challenges that must be overcome before teledentistry can become the norm. It is definitely true that there is less in-person care, which could harm patient outcomes in the long run. This is probably the most critical factor oversight groups are paying close attention to right now. As long as teledentistry can offer quality patient care, it will stay around.
The other major challenge is access to internet services. During the global pandemic, many schools that shut down realized their students lived in areas without internet access. This primarily affected rural patients who either could not afford network connections or did not have an available service provider.
As teledentistry expands to more areas of the world, there will most likely be more emphasis on developing networks for more rural living spaces.
How Teledentistry Improves Rural Access
The best solution teledentistry offers rural patients is that it can enable patients to avoid long travel times and out-of-pocket costs associated with visiting a dentist’s office. It also provides an opportunity for dental students or other professionals who are currently located in rural areas to obtain needed training from specialists located elsewhere (e.g., at academic teaching hospitals).
In addition, teledentistry may provide more opportunities for dentists working in isolated locations to work collaboratively with colleagues who live in larger cities or other hubs of health care services and research. This collaboration can help create new knowledge about how best to treat certain conditions and provide better care overall for patients across the country.
It comes down to ease of access for both patients and working dental professionals. The greater the ability to access information, the higher skilled and educated the population becomes. This lowers the barriers for new dentists seeking a pathway to a lucrative career as well.
What is the Future of Teledentistry?
As this technology is integrated into daily life, you can expect app development and mobile use cases to rapidly expand. Dental practices will begin offering bespoke services via a unique mobile platform just for their location. That way, you could be on your way to a meeting via ride-sharing and get a quick checkup in the backseat.
Again, all of these developments will have to be aligned with quality patient care so the benefits of teledentistry do not overshadow the treatment received. Anytime there is a cost-effective solution to a problem, it has staying power in the public parlance. That is why teledentistry is not likely to go anywhere anytime soon. Better access to medical providers at lower costs seems like an excellent step forward, especially for those that may have never had the chance to see a dentist before.
Teledentistry has many advantages, and it is crucial to understand how it can help patients. While there are some obstacles that need to be overcome, these solutions will likely lead to an increase in the use of teledentistry in both urban and rural areas. As younger dentists come online by getting their practices approved, we can expect to see greater access and treatment possibilities for quality dental care all over Canada and the rest of the world.
About The Author:
Karen Nunez was born in Valenzuela, Philippines. She received her Doctor of Dental Medicine degree from Centro Escolar University in Manila.
Karen currently is a practicing oral health care professional based in Alberta, Canada; and runs a Blog where she writes a slew of articles to empower internationally trained dentists to integrate into Canadian dentistry.
Read more of her blogs here.