Dental Telemedicine (Teledentistry)

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What is Teledentistry?

Teledentistry is a relatively new term gaining popularity in a time during which people have an increased need for remote access to dental care.

Rather than referring to a specific dental procedure, teledentistry refers to the use of virtual communication between the dentist and patient to provide health and dental hygiene education services. 

How Does Teledentistry Work?

Teledentistry consists of a virtual patient visit with a licensed dentist. Typically, a virtual visit will include some form of communication, including but not limited to phone calls, videoconferencing, texting, emailing or texting photos or videos, or using an online chat forum. 

The purpose of the communication is for the dentist to gather enough information to make a reasonable diagnosis of the patient’s dental problem. The more detailed the information, the more accurate the diagnosis. This is why electronically sharing photos and videos is so valuable to teledentistry. 

Once the dentist comes to a conclusion based on the information presented, he or she can prescribe medications, recommend at-home solutions, or refer the patient for emergency in-person care.

Types of Teledentistry Services

Patients may access teledentistry services through their private practice dentist or dental specialist. For example, if someone already has a good relationship with a dentist, who knows the patient and his dental condition well, a phone or video consultation with him or her is the best option. 

Dentists often have access to their patients’ records from home that allows them to quickly review any recent findings or risk areas a patient has. This access to a patient’s dental history with x-rays and clinical records helps the dentist reach the proper diagnosis much more easily than receiving a digital photo of a tooth from someone the dentist has never seen before. More information always leads to a more accurate diagnosis. Reaching out to one’s personal dentist is best when it is an option.

Some patients experiencing dental problems do not have an established relationship with a dentist. Some may live in a state where the practice of teledentistry is prohibited by the state’s regulatory agencies. In cases like this, it may be necessary to use online services to gain access to teledentistry. 

There are many online sites offering dental advice and “ask the expert” type services, but true teledentistry is a little more difficult to find. A web search of “teledentistry” at this time produces more results on what teledentistry is than sites where one can actually obtain the services.

According to the American Dental Association: “Dentists and allied dental personnel who deliver services through teledentistry modalities must be licensed or credentialed in accordance with the laws of the state in which the patient receives service. 

The delivery of services via teledentistry must comply with the state’s scope of practice laws, regulations or rules.”This means that the dentist must possess a license in good standing with the dental board in the state of the patient

In the U.S., there is not a single federal dental license, allowing dentists to practice anywhere in the country. Some states (like Texas and Maine) do not allow the practice of teledentistry because their regulatory agency rules require tactile and visual examinations for the diagnosis of dental problems. 

Pros and Cons of Telehealth Dental Care

Despite its limitations, there is a need for the type of care dentists can provide via teledentistry. It is a controversial topic among dentists, public health officials, and state regulatory agencies. It is also a continually evolving realm in dentistry.

Pros of Telehealth Dental Care

  • Increased access to patient care — This is especially important to those in rural or underserved areas, people with limited mobility due to severe health problems, or travelers who experience dental problems when they are away from home.
  • Opportunity for patient education — Often patients simply need to know whether what they are experiencing is an emergency. A virtual consultation can educate the patient in order to help him or her make the best decision for the situation.
  • Prescription of antibiotics for dangerous infections — Infections that are in danger of spreading can be seen and diagnosed during a virtual consultation, allowing the dentist to prescribe the necessary medications to stop the progression of the infection. By providing these prescriptions through teledentistry, we can help reduce the burden on our already overtaxed emergency rooms and urgent care facilities. 

Cons of Telehealth Dental Care

  • Not available in every state — Dentists must adhere to the protocols set forth by their licensing state’s regulatory agencies. 
  • No actual treatment provided — There is no remote treatment for cavities or gum disease. Dental infections can be reduced with the intervention of antibiotic therapy, but that does not cure the problem. In-person, physical dental treatment is necessary to actually fix a dental problem.
  • No x-rays or in-person evaluation limits accuracy of diagnosis — In order to get a complete picture of a dental problem, a dentist requires high definition dental x-rays and a tactile examination of the tooth in question. With the limited information provided in a teledental consultation, patients could receive an incorrect diagnosis.

Teledentistry & Dental Emergencies

During a dental emergency, teledentistry can provide the patient with vital information that gives them a clear path ahead or even saves her life. A teledentistry consultation with a licensed dentist answers the question many patients have: Is this actually a dental emergency? 

In many cases, urgent care is not necessary. The teledentist can save the patient a trip to the emergency room. When a patient does experience a true dental emergency, the teledentist may prescribe medications to stop a dangerous infection or refer the patient to an urgent care facility immediately. 

Teledentistry & The COVID-19 Pandemic

During the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic, teledentistry is playing a vital role in keeping patients with dental problems out of emergency rooms and keeping high risk patients at home! 

While the teledentist is not providing actual treatment, he or she can provide important information on how a patient can care for the teeth and gums while access to dental care remains restricted. 

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