What Is Teledentistry?

It’s easy to figure out how telemedicine works – you don’t need to physically be in a doctor’s presence to get treatment for uncomplicated conditions like allergies or rashes. But teledentistry? That’s a harder concept to grasp – getting dental care is a very hands-on process.

But teledentistry is real, and may soon be coming soon to a state near you. California launched its teledentistry program a couple of months ago, and Arizona, .West Virginia, Hawaii, Oregon and Colorado are among the states currently considering passing legislation that would enable them to offer teledentistry programs to residents of those states.

Teledentistry got its start back in the ‘90s, when it was used by the U.S. Military to treat troops stationed far from dental specialists. When a service member needed more than basic dental care “clinical-grade” images – high resolution digital images – captured in the field would be transmitted to a specialist, who could then diagnose and provide treatment guidance. The actual work could be done by a medic or general dentist on a nearby base, or the service member could be transported elsewhere in order to get the care he or she needed.

In civilian life, teledentistry is a new way of getting dental treatment. Currently it is primarily being viewed as a way to get low-income patients affordable dental care, with an emphasis on preventative care. The process is different  than telemedicine which can easily and effectively be delivered via phone or an online chat. Instead teledentistry programs utilize specially trained hygienists and dental assistants who are supervised by “virtual” dentists.

The hygienists and dental assistants work from temporary clinics – schools, community centers, nursing homes, etc. -performing basic treatments that would normally be outside of their official scope of practice. They might, for example, install temporary fillings to halt decay, or do cleanings – which legally they wouldn’t be able to perform unless a supervising dentist was physically present. States that have teledentistry programs have to pass legislation to allow hygienists and assistants to offer treatments off-site, sans direct supervision.

The hygienists and assistants working in teledentistry programs consult via the internet with their supervising dentists. A consultation may result in sending the patient to the dentist for more complex procedures after the teledental workers have completed basic treatments. This results in a reduced total bill, since a licensed dentist isn’t doing all of the work, and also frees dentists to focus on the more demanding procedures.

California’s teledentistry program will, in its preliminary stages, cost $2.5 million, and is getting its initial funding via grants from non-profits and trade associations. The “Virtual Dental Home Demonstration Project” has been launched in 50 locations throughout the state, including Pacoima, Santa Monica, San Jose, Santa Cruz, East Palo Alto, San Francisco, Sacramento and Eureka.

The return on investment is expected to be significant. For every dollar spent in preventive services an estimated $50 is saved on more expensive, complicated procedures, according to a PBS interview of Dr. James Stephens, president of the California Dental Association.

Some companies that sell dental equipment to dentists are starting to promote the idea of teledentistry as a time-saver to dentists. MouthWatch suggests that teledentistry enables dentists to “more accurately advise if and when an office visit is required, by reviewing images provided by the patient, and “allows more precise scheduling of your chair time.” This certainly could work, if both patient and dentist had the necessary equipment to take and view the high-resolution images necessary – along with the skills needed (on the patient’s side) to capture a usable set of images. Even in the age of selfies, it’s unlikely that anyone really wants to insert their smartphone into their mouth.

No doubt someone reading this is thinking that teledentistry combined with 3-D printer could turn any home or office into a self-service dental clinic. It’s not as far-fetched as it may sound – we can envision a day when your dentist remotely sends a file to you, and you print your own temporary replacement for a cracked crown or broken tooth – but it’s hard to envision it being anything more than dental first aid. We don’t expect dentists to be replaced any time soon. To learn more call one of our :DP AtYourService Customer Care Representatives at 1-800-238-5163.


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