Smartphone App Helps Identify Dental Emergencies

Dentistry Today
Image by Corey Stein.


Image by Corey Stein.

Do you think you have a dental emergency? There’s an app for that, and it may keep you out of the hospital. Researchers led by the Indiana University School of Dentistry have developed and tested a mobile application that enables smartphones to capture and transmit images from inside the mouth, along with details about the possible emergency. Then, the app sends the data to a dentist, who uses it to decide the appropriate treatment. 

The app, known as DentaCom, guides individuals with real or suspected emergencies through a series of questions designed to capture clinically meaningful data via familiar smartphone functions. During the study, all of the subjects were able to complete a guided report on their suspected dental emergency and take photos of the problem region within 4 minutes via the DentaCom app.

“There are many challenges here that our app can help with,” said Thankkam Thyvalikakath, DMD, PhD, senior author of the study. “It is a challenge for the patient to get the dental emergency appropriately managed and not just treated by painkillers in a busy hospital emergency room by a clinician who is not a dental specialist. It is also a challenge for the dentist to get details of the problem.”

Corey Stein, MS, first author of the study and a dental student at Western University of Health Sciences in California, initially came up with the idea for the app when he experienced a dental emergency. He received the ADA’s 2016 Robert H. Ahlstrom New Investigator Award for his work on DentaCom.

When dental emergencies happen outside of dental office hours, patients turn to hospital emergency rooms or urgent care centers. But these facilities typically just treat patients for their pain and refer them to their dentist for car during office hours. Valuable time may be lost before actual treatment is received, and the patient is billed for the emergency or urgent care visit in addition to whatever dental fees will be incurred.

In contrast to a physician’s office, a dentist’s office is hands-on and procedure based, and it can be difficult to add an emergency patient to the schedule. The DentaCom app was designed to provide the detailed guidance that the dentist needs to determine the urgency of and appropriately treat the problem. It was developed on the Android platform due to its open-source nature, though the developers’ long-term goal is to have it available for both Apple and Android phones. 

“We developed this app as a communication tool linking patients and dentists during emergency situations,” said Thyvalikakath, associate professor and the director of the Dental Informatics Core at the Indiana University School of Dentistry. “But I see even more potential in nonemergency situations when individuals, particularly those who lack dental insurance, need guidance: do I need to see a dentist or not?”

The researchers also believe that it can be useful in enhancing access to routine dental care. Stein is now investigating informatics-based protocols to enhance access to care in low-resource communities where economics, insurance, communication, and location all are potential barriers.

“To combat these restraints, we have developed a protocol to facilitate meaningful communication between patients and oral healthcare providers in order to better triage dental emergencies and ascertain chief complaints before a patient makes an appointment,” Stein said, adding that the Western University of Health Sciences College of Dental Medicine is implementing the protocol in a Los Angeles County school district where university-based dental clinics are on site to provide care. 

“By utilizing self-reported, qualitative metrics exchanged through a secure network of oral healthcare professionals, the goal of this protocol is to expedite treatment, increase positive patient outcomes, and reduce costs,” Stein said.

The app is still in development and not available to the public yet. Thyvalikakath says that the next phase of the study will be to determine how end users choose the dentist or dental office the app contacts and how dentists perceive the completeness and usefulness of the information received to make appropriate decisions. 

The study, “A Prototype Mobile Application for Triaging Dental Emergencies,” was published by The Journal of the American Dental Association.

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