With the threat of exposure to the novel coronavirus continuing to increase in the United States, isolation from the public is being encouraged. With most dentist offices closed for all but emergency care, patients have a relatively new way to access dental care through teledentistry.
Teledentistry is a virtual dental visit allowing you and your dentist to meet safely in real-time without being in the same location. Depending on the nature of your problem, your dentist may be able to evaluate your needs and make a recommendation.
How teledentistry works
There are several methods of delivering dental care using teledentistry. A dentist and patient might use a computer with a video camera that allows them to speak directly to each other. The dentist can see the patient’s mouth and make treatment recommendations in real time. Other methods include sending X-rays and photographs through the internet for a dentist or specialist to review before calling the patient back with a diagnosis and treatment plan.
Like telehealth, teledentistry can provide oral health care to people who would otherwise have a difficult time getting to a dentist’s office, such as those living in rural areas and patients who live in nursing homes or rehabilitation centers.
Virtual examinations and consultations for dentistry can be a cost-effective and convenient way for many patients. With the increase in the general population’s ability to obtain contact lenses, prescription medicines, bank and file taxes online, dentists and patients are starting to embrace technology that allows them to provide care to patients outside their office walls.
Teledentistry benefits include the following:
- Improves patient’s oral hygiene
- Less expensive than in-office visits
- Improves access to care
- Reduces time away from jobs and home
- More accessible to working patients
- Provides the same standard of care as face-to-face appointments
Common situations where a licensed dentist can use teledentistry to evaluate and diagnose a patient just as in a face-to-face dental visit include:
- A patient comes to their local hospital’s emergency room with a swollen tooth. Emergency room staff contacts a dentist using teledentistry methods to determine the best treatment plan.
- A patient at home experiences a toothache and contacts a remote dentist to assess the condition and prescribe medications or home care treatments.
- A child with a disability has a toothache. The parent, using digital cameras and internet access, has a dentist evaluate the condition to determine if a trip to the office is necessary.
Limitations of teledentistry
As with all new innovations, teledentistry has its limitations. While many services, such as examinations, diagnosis, X-rays, treatment planning and patient education can be accomplished using teledentistry, some services still require a hands-on approach.
Fillings and crowns require a visit to a dental office; teeth cleaning and gum disease treatments require the use of equipment only found at a brick-and-mortar clinic; root canal therapy and tooth extractions must be done in a dental office.
Other limitations include the lack of broadband internet access in rural areas, patients’ inability to access or use technology, some dentists’ inability to get reimbursed for teledental services, limitations of laws and regulations, and the cost of the equipment.
Which states allow teledentistry?
Teledentistry is a relatively new concept so some state dental regulatory boards have not written regulations to implement the practice. With patient safety and protection in mind, teledentistry regulations often focus on making sure patients receive the same quality of care as those who go to brick-and-mortar offices. In other words, the service a patient receives using teledentistry must meet the same standards that the patient would receive in a dental office.
Twenty-three states have adopted reimbursement policies related to teledentistry in their Medicaid programs and/or private payer policies. Additional states have introduced teledentistry legislation.1 Medicaid typically requires reimbursement for live video interactions while private insurance may cover teledentistry just as it would in-person visits.
Even if you live in one of the above states, calling your state dental board is the best way to find out what types of services are covered. If you have dental insurance, calling your dental insurance provider is another reliable source to confirm coverage before you have a teledentistry visit.
Will my dental insurance cover teledentistry?
Some dental insurance companies, as well as Medicaid, recognize the need for teledentistry, especially during COVID-19. Dentists may bill your insurance company in the same way they bill when you come to their office. Any restrictions, deductibles, co-pays, co-insurance costs and annual maximums that are a part of your dental insurance policy still apply to teledentistry consultations. However, it’s best to contact your insurance provider for more details.
Telehealth vs. teledentistry
The use of telehealth has increased steadily over the last few years and with many Americans confined to their homes because of the novel coronavirus outbreak, telehealth visits have surged this year amid the coronavirus pandemic.2 More states are deploying telehealth measures to ensure people can receive care without putting themselves or healthcare providers at risk.
As the nation grapples with what changes will need to be implemented in the future to prevent outbreaks like this one, telehealth, teledentistry and telemedicine could continue to play a larger role in helping people receive the healthcare they need. Even though telehealth, telemedicine and teledentistry are similar there are key differences.
What is telehealth?
Telehealth is an umbrella term that incorporates using technology like video chat, live streaming, social media, and secure cloud technology to provide a comprehensive set of health-related services. Telehealth is broader in scope than telemedicine, which is focused on consultations with physicians and treatment procedures. Telehealth can include appointments for things like mental health and counseling, nutrition counseling and much more that isn’t covered by telemedicine. Telehealth can also include teledentistry.
How telehealth and teledentistry differ
Everything from diet and nutrition to questions about prescription interaction, to suggestions for managing stress and personal wellness all fall under the umbrella of telehealth. Telehealth incorporates components from medicine, dentistry, vision care and lifestyle choices into one so that patients have a central system of organization for getting online or virtual advice and care.
Teledentistry is solely focused on a patient’s dental health and care. A dentist can give you an exam, digitally read and store your X-rays, consult with a specialist in real time and do many other things using technology so that people can learn about and practice good oral hygiene as well as get the care and information they need to keep their teeth healthy.
The future of teledentistry
Delivery of dental care through teledentistry has enormous potential. Rural communities that have no access to a local dentist or specialists could benefit most. Advances in computer technology, better availability to internet access, the proliferation of smart phones with photo and video capabilities makes teledentistry easier to implement.
Ultimately teledentistry may be able to improve access to care and lower the cost of that care. The ease of exchanging information can lead to better patient care, the ability to provide specialty consultations and help patients to better understand their treatment options.
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Brought to you by The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America (Guardian), New York, NY. Material discussed is meant for general illustration and/or informational purposes only and it is not to be construed as tax, legal, investment or medical advice. It is not dental care advice and should not be substituted for regular consultation with your dentist. If you have any concerns about your dental health, please contact your dentist's office.