Researchers see potential for teledentistry to address disparities in care

Mary Otto

About Mary Otto

Mary Otto, a Washington, D.C.-based freelancer, is AHCJ's topic leader on oral health and the author of "Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America." She can be reached at mary@healthjournalism.org.

Photo: Matt Madd via Flickr

Telehealth technologies are on the rise, connecting patients and providers, and expanding access to crucial health services that can be scarce and sometimes difficult to reach. Thanks to digital innovations, high-risk infants and stroke patients are receiving specialty care remotely. People coping with anxiety and depression are benefiting from therapist-supported internet cognitive behavioral therapy.

In the field of oral health, teledentistry is proving increasingly useful too, according to the December issue of Health Affairs that explored the transformative potential of telehealth technologies.

“Dentistry has embraced telemedicine more slowly and on a smaller scale,” noted authors of one paper included in the issue, which reported findings from a teledentistry project led by the University of Rochester’s Eastman Institute for Oral Health (EIOH). “Nevertheless, teledentistry has been demonstrated to be a practical and cost-effective way to improve access and increase oral health care use, especially among rural and disadvantaged children.”

Since 2004, the program has used digital technology to provide teledentistry screening services to almost 1,500 disadvantaged urban and rural school children in New York.

Many of the children had never seen a dentist prior to their participation, and the digital screenings and consultations that took place at urban child care centers in Rochester and Finger Lakes Community Health (FLCH) rural clinics were shown to be useful in connecting patients with needed care and helping their families complete treatment plans, the authors concluded.

In the urban segment of the study, parents and caregivers who received intraoral camera images of decay in their children’s’ teeth were significantly more likely to obtain follow-up care than those whose children received traditional exams, the researchers observed.

In the rural group, live video consultations with specialists, which were facilitated by local dental hygienists, increased the comfort level of parents and children who had to travel to Rochester to obtain follow-up specialty care.

“Parents are receptive to the convenience of teledentistry services, as it fosters treatment completion by accurately triaging children into the specific treatment modality while saving time, mileage and resources,” the authors wrote.

For wider implementation, teledentistry will need to overcome certain challenges, including reimbursement issues and data quality, the authors acknowledged, adding that the approach offers hope for the future.

“Our long-term goal is to expand teledentistry services to other populations of patients, including geriatric patients and those with special needs,” they wrote.

EIOH, in conjunction with the American TeleDentistry Association, has organized the first national teledentistry conference for June in Rochester, N.Y.

From New York to Hawaii, teledentistry projects have been unfolding. Want to know more about teledentistry? Check out this new AHCJ tip sheet.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.