What is Teledentistry and Does It Work for My Dental Care Needs?

what is teledentistry

In today’s busy world, getting to the dentist can seem like a daunting task. We all know dental care is important, but the ADA estimates that up to 42% of Americans are not seeing the dentist as often as they like. The cause for this varies, but a common thread is that getting to the dentist is simply a bit of a hassle.

Luckily, teledentistry options have become more widespread and give people the ability to book virtual appointments and receive remote oral care. Many people naturally have lots of questions about teledentistry, so we’ll look at some of the important ones to help you decide if it can help you.

What Is Teledentistry?

Teledentistry refers to the wide range of technologies used to administer dental health and information services. You might also see this referred to as telehealth, a broader term that encompasses a wider range of healthcare services.

This formal definition of teledentistry can be thought of as any time you receive dental care outside of the dental office. Things such as remote dental visits or virtual visits fall under teledentistry, but so do things such as prescriptions. In many cases, you might already be doing some of these, or they might be taking place behind the scenes. If you’ve ever received a prescription from your dentist over the phone or used an at-home orthodontics kit, then you’ve already made use of teledentistry.

Najeed Saleh, Penn Dental Medicine’s Associate Dean for Clinical Affairs, has this to say about the technology, “I think the patients are very pleased their needs are being addressed...and there are certain cases where we resolve the problem for the patient completely and they’re very appreciative.”

Here’s a list of teledentistry services to give you a better idea of what they might include:

  • Online prescriptions
  • One-on-one voice or video calls with a dentist
  • Remote monitoring of patients
  • Forwarding images/video to a dental practitioner to aid in diagnosis or treatment
  • Online dental education
  • Remote treatment (such as guidance for in-home orthodontics)

This is just a sampling of some of the services that fall under the teledentistry umbrella. These are often further separated into two main categories of care; synchronous and asynchronous teledentistry.

Synchronous teledentistry can be thought of as “live virtual care.” In this category of care, the dentist is working with you in real time, such as on a video call, to help with your dental needs. Think of this synchronous teledentistry being conducted like Facetime or a Zoom call. But instead of chatting with friends, you’re interacting with your dentist.

Asynchronous teledentistry is more “behind the scenes” care. This type of virtual care can be done without you being present, such as forwarding X-rays to an out-of-state dentist for a second opinion. Asynchronous teledentistry allows dentists to examine your records and make suggestions without you even needing to be present. This might be something such as reviewing your dental history or giving permission for an on-going prescription refill.

What Types of Teledentistry Procedures Are Available?

It’s also important to understand the breadth of services provided under teledentistry. Not all dental services will be available. You’ll be limited to those that can be accomplished remotely. There are three main areas of care available remotely:

Assessments: This includes any care or advice given by a dentist based on visual inspections. This can be done based on existing or new images/videos or might consist of a live video session with a dentist. This is often used to diagnose minor problems or provide feedback on recommended care for more serious ones.

Prescriptions: Prescribing medications is another big part of teledentistry. This allows patients to get prescriptions like pain medications or antibiotics without having to visit their dentist, saving time and money for both sides. It’s also key to limiting existing problems; antibiotics given early enough can help stop the spread of bacteria and prevent more serious infections.

Supervision: Remote dentistry is also a good use case for supervision. Orthodontics is a great example of this as braces often need to be checked but not necessarily adjusted. Many companies have sprung up in this sector with home delivery orthodontics options.

Notice that none of the above are for any serious surgery or dental work. Any surgery or more involved dental procedures still require a visit to the office. The importance is not lost; much of the above aims to reduce the likelihood you’ll experience a major dental issue.

What Are the Benefits of Teledentistry?

The adoption of teledentistry is heavily driven by the benefits it brings to patients. While there are certainly incentives for dentists, patients reap a variety of perks from teledentistry services.

Teledentistry Provides Convenience Both at Home and in the Dental Office

The primary benefit for patients is the added convenience and time-saving capabilities that teledentistry provides. A virtual dental care appointment can take place almost anywhere, so it can save a lot of time and stress for patients. This also means that dentists have more availability for procedures and consultations that do require an in-person visit. Ultimately, the convenience of on-demand dental care is a huge draw for the adoption of teledentistry practices.

Online Dental Care Can Drive Down Costs for Patients

Teledentistry is also shown to come at a lower cost. This is not only because of the reduced need for offices and staff but also because it helps people get more preventative care. Major surgery is an enormous dental cost, but can often be prevented with proper preventive measures. By increasing the accessibility of dental care, more people can get care before issues become serious. This cost saving goes both ways, both patients and providers enjoy it.

Virtual Dentistry Provides Patients a Wider Range of Choices from Dental Professionals

Due to the lack of need for geographic proximity, teledentistry opens up the door for patients to see a larger range of professionals. A teledentistry appointment can take place across the world, so considerations of travel time no longer need to come into play.

This is especially helpful for patients looking to get a second opinion on dental work. Working with a top professional becomes a reality and can help patients make informed decisions about their care, even if they live miles away.

Teledentistry Gives Access to Patients That Might Otherwise Have Difficulty Obtaining It

Many Americans cite distance as a major concern when getting to a dentist, but teledensity can help ease that burden. Being able to access dental professionals from your own home means more Americans will get checkups outside of critical emergencies.

Online Dental Care Gives Patients Quicker Access to Emergency Care

A big draw of teledentistry is also the ability to access on-demand emergency consultations. No matter when a dental problem occurs or where you are, getting feedback is extremely valuable. In the event of a dental emergency, you want immediate access to advice, care, and prescriptions; and teledentistry provides just that to patients.

Are There Restrictions and Laws Around Teledentistry?

With the quick adoption of teledentistry throughout the country, many patients are understandably concerned about the quality of care they might receive. In addition, medical information is profoundly sensitive, and many patients are concerned about their privacy. These sorts of concerns are ones that dental professionals are looking to alleviate.

First off, the quality of care and advice provided by teledentistry is safe and on par with office visits. This means that patients can be assured that they will receive quality care and expert advice. The American Dental Association (ADA) has explicitly voiced support for teledentistry as long as it maintains the same quality of care for patients. Dentists are equally committed to this standard.

Many states have also taken note of teledentistry and have begun to put laws on the books related to it. The laws differ by state and are constantly evolving, but the overarching theme is protecting the patient. This includes things like ensuring standards of care for virtual visits, recourse for subpar treatment, and compliance with HIPAA and privacy laws. As teledentistry becomes more popular, it’s almost guaranteed that more laws will be created to govern its practice.

Is Teledentistry Right for Me?

With all the above in mind, it’s important to decide if your dental issue fits into the offerings of teledentistry. With an estimated 3.2 million virtual patients in 2018, the industry is certainly capturing a large share of American patients. It’s also important to note that important organizations such as the ADA have come out in support of the practice and are providing input to policies regarding its implementation. The signs all point to teledentistry growing even further in the years to come, providing attractive benefits to those that use it.

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