Dental colleges welcome teledentistry as the next step in expanding access to health care

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On March 6, 2020, teledentistry student groups from the University of North Carolina and the University of Eastern Carolina hosted the second annual North Carolina Teledentistry Symposium. Photo courtesy of Chris Pope

Just as telehealth has revolutionized medical care in recent years, the new field of teledentistry will forever change the way Americans access oral health care. As with virtual medical services, this form of treatment has been hailed for its ability to expand access to those who are underserved, especially those on low incomes or living in rural areas.

The benefits of teledentistry include be efficient in terms of time and costs. Adults who cannot afford to take time off work for a dental appointment can use the remote care option to reduce travel time and spend most of their time with a medical professional rather than in a waiting room. This option also helps dentists, who are often understaffed in rural areas, to be able to see more patients, reports the American Teledentistry Association.

Despite these benefits, only 23% of dental students perform teledentistry clinical experiences, according to an October 2021 report from the American Dental Education Association (ADEA). As the field has grown in popularity in recent years, the COVID-19 pandemic has increased demand, leading more dental schools to expand their services to include telehealth education and practices.

“Teledentistry is no longer the future. It’s here,” Laurence Gaalaas, DDS, clinical assistant professor at the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry (UMN SOD), said on the school’s news website in 2021. that the pandemic has opened up to specialized virtual consultations and communication with patients have won” will not be closed any time soon.

UMN SOD is an institution that has prioritized teledentistry education for many years. In 2004, he established a teledentistry network to connect university specialists to dentists and patients in remote rural areas. During the pandemic, the school has expanded its partnership with community health centers for the delivery of oral health care services, ADEA reports.

Today, UMN SOD is working to develop an interdisciplinary teledentistry simulation training program for students.

“With the need to improve access to dental services – which is linked to health disparities, geographic remoteness, distribution of the dental workforce and the COVID-19 pandemic – training in teledentistry simulation will benefit not only students but also communities,” says Boyen Huang, DDS, PhD, associate professor at UMN SOD, who is leading the development of the new program.

After successfully completing simulation training, students will be able to examine patients remotely, record information, and generate diagnoses using teledentistry technologies. The school plans to launch the simulation sessions during the summer and fall 2022 semesters.

“It could further inspire future dental providers to engage in professional development opportunities related to teledentistry and other health information technologies,” Huang said.

In 2019, East Carolina University School of Dental Medicine (ECU SoDM) implemented a provider-to-provider teledentistry service that connects on-campus practitioners to the school’s community service-learning centers and to d other providers throughout North Carolina. Of the 100 counties in the state, 98 are federally designated as dental professional shortage areas.

ECU SoDM’s service uses intraoral cameras that allow practitioners to take images inside a patient’s mouth.

“The clinician can use a chairside intraoral camera to perform a clinical examination and project the imagery to a remote provider,” explains Andres Flores, DDS, assistant professor and division director of oral and maxillofacial pathology at the school. “In our experience, this significantly reduces the travel required, the number of appointments, the speed of diagnosis and the barriers to accessing care for our patients, especially specialist dental care in rural communities.

In November, ECU SoDM and ECU Brody School of Medicine received a $1.75 million grant from the US Department of Health and Human Services to expand the range of these services. Known as the Consortium for Home Telehealth, the effort aims to leverage broadband and cellular access in rural communities and examine barriers for underserved patients, according to a university press release. The innovative project will integrate dental, medical, nutritional and behavioral care, explains Flores.

Other higher education institutions across the state have turned to unique teledentistry solutions to improve care for their citizens. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC Chapel Hill) Claude A. Adams Jr. and Grace Phillips Adams School of Dentistry launched the Carolina Dentistry Virtual Oral Health Care hotline in March 2020 to help patients with avoid the COVID-19 epidemic and reduce the burden of dental patients in emergency rooms.

“We continued to challenge the delivery of oral health care in our state, and it started because we were already thinking creatively about how to serve patients,” said Nigel Shaun Matthews, former director of the school telehealth, in a press release.

The hotline can be used to screen children in schools, seniors in nursing homes, at-risk populations in remote areas of the state, incarcerated people, and more, Matthews explained in the communicated. In its first three months of operation, the helpline received 1,500 calls; depending on the school, patients were either referred to emergency clinics or had their needs handled by computer or telephone.

Dental students at UNC Chapel Hill also recently created the Teledentistry Student Group. Members participate in research and community service projects and advocate for public policies that support the expansion of teledentistry.

The practice, however, is not without its detractors. Some members of the dental profession have argued that remote services are inadequate because they limit the use of x-rays and other diagnostic tools. Yet global research suggests that telehealth is the next major step in dentistry.

On February 22, 2019, the University of North Carolina Teledentistry Student Group hosted Singapore’s U.S. Ambassador Ashok Mirpuri (center) at the school for a discussion on teledentistry.

“Health care delivery systems, oral health stakeholders and policy makers have a critical role to play in ensuring that teledentistry parity is achieved in order to continue providing oral health services. optimal,” ADEA said recently. “Looking to the future, academic dentistry will play a pivotal role in educating and training the dentists of tomorrow in teledentistry modalities and will provide a new perspective on the delivery of oral health care.

Mariah Stewart is senior editor for OVERVIEW of diversity.

This article originally appeared in our May 2022 issue.

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