Teledentistry Can Help Us Solve Dentistry’s Access to Care Challenges

Heather Schneider, DMD

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Teledentistry, in its earliest incarnation, was yet another luxury service developed for the convenience of dental care delivery for the general population. But could it also be the solution for access to care among the underserved population far beyond its mainstream use amid COVID-19?

In-person visits to your oral care professional, such as a dentist or hygienist, are what most of us think about when we say we’re going to the dentist. But thanks to advances in technology, patients may now be able to access their dentists online.

According to the ADA, teledentistry can be an effective way to extend the reach of dental professionals, increasing access to care by reducing the impact of barriers such as transportation or work schedules.

With the availability of teledentistry, professional oral healthcare has become even more accessible for the general population. Teledentistry requires a computer or cell phone and a secure internet connection, giving the dentist the opportunity to interact with patients online.

In addition to direct patient care and education, teledentistry also refers to online medical record storage and the electronic transmission of medical record information from one provider to another, when needed or requested.

Challenges in Access to Teledentistry

With a tech-savvy population, this online healthcare delivery system is becoming increasingly more available and accessible in our communities. But what if you don’t have a cellphone with a data plan or access to a computer with an internet connection? Is teledentistry still a viable option?

Our communities’ homeless population, lower wage-earners, or seniors living in nursing facilities may not have the luxury of connecting with an oral health professional as easily when access to the technology and required devices are not immediately available.

If finances and access to technology, including phones and computers, as well as other barriers to care such as transportation, other health-related issues, or language continue to be common roadblocks between underserved populations and access to care even with the availability of teledentistry, then teledentistry may not be the solution to treating the underserved.

Or is it?

With a few modifications, teledentistry could still be a fantastic solution for bringing quality oral healthcare to underserved communities.

What if teledentistry and mobile dentistry units in a community worked together? With a concerted effort to identify the various populations per region and staff mobile units appropriately with regard to language and expertise in each community’s individual dental needs, we may have a viable solution to bringing oral care to those who need it.

Two Solutions

The Delta Dental of Arizona Foundation currently supports two very different teledentistry mobile programs.

AT Still University’s Arizona School of Dentistry and Oral health (ATSU-ASDOH) runs Collaborative Community Care Through Telehealth, which focuses on children and seniors in the Phoenix area by providing oral healthcare by visiting senior centers, long-term care facilities, youth detention centers, and special needs and youth programs.

Students and faculty travel to various partner locations and provide restorative care and referrals. These patients have few care options due to lack of transportation and mobility. The cost of care often is also a barrier.

Tooth BUDDS is another mobile teledentistry program that provides preventive and limited restorative care to children in Graham and Greenlee counties, where access to care is an issue, as the closest dentist is often one to two hours away for children living in towns like Morenci, Solomon, and Pima.

Nearly a thousand kids a year receive preventive care, X-rays, and treatment, including fillings and extractions, from three traveling affiliated practice dental hygienists who visit schools throughout the counties.   

It’s exciting to think that the problem of access to care is finally being addressed in a way that opens the doors to healthy living to all people in all communities. Soon, dental health will no longer be an untouchable luxury for these populations but rather the attainable necessity that it should be for all. 

Dr. Schneider is the dental director at Delta Dental of Arizona and has more than 19 years of experience in dental administration, dental education and clinical dentistry.

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