When people talk about remote teledentistry they’re usually referring to the use of secure technology, says Spadoni, “like live video chats, phone calls, emails, or text messages – to connect patients virtually with a board-certified dentist due to an urgent dental concern.”
A teledentistry appointment begins with a patient requesting an appointment, and then entering the virtual dentist’s office for synchronous (or live) communication and care. They may be asked to share health information beforehand or during the consultation. The actual appointment is then done through a HIPAA-compliant video conferencing software platform.
During a real-time appointment, patients discuss their symptoms and dentists may ask them to “open wide” so they can get a look inside. “We can then gauge the urgency of a patient’s need, assess likely treatment needs, and schedule further treatment accordingly,” says Goodman.
Teledentistry helps with the continuity of preventive, routine care for those who need it, says Goodman. “It has become an essential tool to provide safe, efficient and accessible dental care to everyone, but importantly, for those populations with previously limited access to care, including communities of color and those in rural areas.”
There are benefits on both the patient and practitioner side, too, adds Spadoni. “Patients can avoid lengthy travel or wait times, and even expensive visits to an emergency room by instead seeing a dentist anytime and anywhere they want,” she explains. And for dentists, teledentistry allows them to help more patients each day, reduce downtime and expenses for cleaning equipment between patients, and focus on prioritizing patients that need to be seen in person.
“Employer-sponsored dental plans may also find teledentistry reduces overall healthcare costs as virtual visits require less time out of the workplace and tend to cost less than office visits,” adds Spadoni.
“If a patient is experiencing discomfort in their mouth, a dentist can perform an initial dental examination remotely by looking at the video stream to see if there are any visual signs of irritation like swelling or bleeding and then prescribe antibiotics if needed,” says Spadoni.
They can also help patients manage pain, or help patients find a dentist in their area if a follow-up, in-person consultation is needed. “Dentists can give really good professional guidance on safely using medications to get them by until we are able to treat their dental problem in the dental office,” adds Goodman. During a teledentistry visit, dentists may also recommend an over-the-counter mouth guard, or determine if a broken tooth can be stabilized, he adds.
Teledentists can also treat common, non-painful oral issues like dry mouth or offer advice on teeth whitening, says Spadoni. “They can also provide follow-up care after oral surgery, support periodic orthodontic consults (braces), and coordinate care between dentists and other care providers for better whole person health,” she says.
Another way teledentistry is being used is for dentists to review patient data that’s captured by another provider such as a dental hygienist delivering care in a remote community setting. “This allows practices to offer more community-based preventive care while focusing on treating patients in need of more in-office intensive services,” says Goodman. “In this way, telemedicine can help close the stark access gap in health care and start to improve health care for everyone.”
Patients with dental benefits should check their plan’s coverage; in some cases, there may be no out-of-pocket fees for their teledental visits, says Spadoni. “Patients without dental insurance could pay around $59 for a 10-minute visit, which is a fraction of the cost of a visit to the emergency room or urgent care center that could cost between $400 and $1,000 while achieving the same patient outcomes,” she says.
The cost of teledentistry often depends on location and insurance as policy and reimbursement varies from state to state, including for Medicare, says Goodman. One bright side of the pandemic, though, is that plans have given greater flexibility for teledentistry coverage. “I hope states will continue to adjust their policies to allow for continued and enhanced use of teledentistry going forward,” he says.
Teledentistry is available across the United States, except in Texas where there is pending legislation, says Spadoni.
Some states have stricter laws limiting its use, while others have little or no regulations, adds Goodman. “As an oral health community, we are continuing to work with state legislators to evolve policies and expand teledentistry’s use,” he says.
Goodman predicts that as more stakeholders realize the benefits of teledentistry – reduced costs, increased access, and improved care – that it will become more widely accepted.
“The last year has shown that teledentistry is a safe, convenient, and reliable option for patients to receive dental care,” agrees Spadoni. “We expect its popularity will continue to grow.”
OnlineDoctor.com interviewed these experts for article guidance:
Dr. Katina Spadoni, Dental Director at Anthem, Inc.
Dr. Justin Goodman, Advantage Dental, Portland, OR