Teledentistry and underserved communities

Since the beginning of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in March, interest in teledentistry has been on the rise in the U.S. Teledentistry, a virtual dental consultation that uses a cellphone or computer, is a quick and convenient way to get your concerns seen by your dentist without needing to leave your home.

Teledentistry can help anyone gain quick and safe access to a dentist, but these services are especially useful for communities who struggle with accessing health care. 

People with limited mobility

Some people who struggle to get into the dentist’s office are those with limited mobility. Mobility issues can affect the elderly, pregnant women or people with health conditions that make travel difficult. Tools like wheelchairs or walkers can help, but not all people have access to them, and even then, many buildings and transportation options aren’t accessible to wheelchair users. Teledentistry is an alternative to in-person visits that may be more affordable and less unwieldy for patients. 

People in long-term care

Similarly, teledentistry can also help people in long-term care facilities like hospices, assisted living facilities or rehabilitation centers. These facilities often don’t have a dedicated dentist on staff and so patients must travel to get dental care. In some instances, cost and coordination make traveling for care difficult, but in cases where patients absolutely cannot leave their facility, teledentistry is potentially the best option to have their oral health evaluated. 

Rural communities

Rural communities have fewer dentists than urban communities and there are higher rates of poverty. For people who live in rural areas going to the dentist can be difficult on many levels. Lack of access to public transport means that travel by car is probably necessary and travel times can be long. Someone who lacks access to a car, cannot afford gas or is unable to get time away from work will most likely not go to the dentist. Teledentistry helps by allowing patients to get care asynchronously, which means the patients capture information on their own and then send it to their dentists to be reviewed later. This type of care usually takes about 15 minutes and doesn’t require special tools. 

What challenges does teledentistry face?

Insufficient infrastructure contributes to some of the challenges, since almost 52% of rural Americans don’t have access to high-speed internet, 29% of rural Americans don’t have a smartphone and 25% of American adults don’t own a computer. Teledentistry options may be more limited for people who don’t have access to the internet, so lower-income people or people in rural areas who would benefit a lot from using teledentistry services are not able to use them.

Software barriers are much broader, but a major potential problem is with HIPAA compliance. HIPAA, which stands for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, is a federal law that protects sensitive patient information from being shared without the patient’s consent. In order to be secure that patient information, additional security and processes need to be in place at software companies to make sure no one has access to your information. The Center for Connected Health Policy acknowledges that some companies may not be creating software and internal measures to make sure private information is protected.

There are also limitations in terms of what teledentistry can do virtually. Dentists can’t fill cavities or replace crowns virtually. Patients who need serious dental work still need to go into the office, but teledentistry can be the first step in identifying the need for in-person work. In a virtual visit, dentists may also be able to educate patients about preventive care, as well as prescribe temporary relief for dental pain.

What does the future look like?

Despite the challenges that teledentistry currently faces, it’s likely to stick around. Dentists who work in teledentistry believe that teledentistry will only continue to grow in popularity from here, due to its convenience and potential to be more affordable. Teledentistry offers convenience and cost-saving benefits. It’s also very effective in just generally reducing the spread of infection — and that will always be beneficial for those who are immunocompromised or otherwise at risk.