Dentists Use Telehealth to Improve Access to Care - And Fight a Phobia

Dentists are looking to telehealth and mHealth to improve access to oral care during emergencies - and to convince reluctant patients to overcome their fear of the dentist's office.


by Eric Wicklund


May 13, 2019 - Dentists are starting to take a closer look at how telehealth and mHealth can improve their care delivery.


The possibilities are numerous. Some dentists are using mHealth apps to enable patients – regular and new – to ask questions about oral care, make appointments or schedule emergency visits. Some are using mHealth devices like VR glasses to sooth their jittery patients during cleanings and other routine work.


Others are using telemedicine to facilitate virtual visits, and are targeting the roughly $2 billion spent each year on emergency oral care at hospitals and clinics.


“We’re the next telehealth specialist,” says Maria Kunstadter, DDS, co-founder of The TeleDentists, who was exhibiting at last month’s American Telemedicine Association conference in New Orleans. “I don’t know anyone (who’s in need of emergency care) who wants to wait six weeks for an appointment with their dentist.”


Telehealth companies like The TeleDentists are targeting a pain point – quite literally – in healthcare: negative health outcomes caused by a lack of dental care, often due to the fear of the needle and the drill.


“More than seven million people each year need immediate access to help for urgent dental issues,” Kunstadter  said in a press release earlier this year. “It’s no wonder, given the fact that tens of millions of people each year neglect maintenance on their mouth and teeth. In fact, the average person in this country – regardless of age or economic profile – has not been to a dentist in three years, making it inevitable that these problems occur.”


The telemedicine model for emergency care is simple. Health systems, payers and self-employed businesses partner with a telehealth company to provide on-demand access to dentists. That access is through a virtual visit, with dentists offering care or guiding on-site medical assistants, prescribing medications and scheduling follow-up care.


Kunstadter says the connected care platform doesn’t take the place of the local dentist, but facilities emergency care and coordinates the follow-up trip the dentist. It can be especially helpful for those who lack access to a dentist, such as college students, truckers and businessmen.


“The best thing we do is put people in dentist’s offices,” she says.


The teledentistry industry has been growing fitfully, and is just now appearing on the radar of larger telemedicine and telehealth providers like Philips, which is reportedly developing an mHealth platform for teledentistry in Europe. Others have been testing the platform as a means of pushing oral health video visits into underserved areas like low-income neighborhoods, community health centers and Native American communities.


Also advocating for the industry is the American Teledentistry Association , which sprang into being roughly one year ago.


“Teledentistry is really in its infancy,” Marc Ackerman, DMD, MBA, FACD, the group’s founder and Director of Orthodontics at Boston Children’s Hospital, told mHealthIntelligence.comlast year. Like other medical specialties, he says, it needs an advocacy group to guide practitioners, develop best practices and ensure the technology is available for those who want to use it.


“The immediate goal of the ATDA is to educate dental professionals and the public about the benefits of teledentistry,” Ackerman said. “Teledentistry has the ability to help patients get access to needed dental care they deserve, both affordably and conveniently. It's our mission to modernize access to care through teledentistry with advocacy for the implementation of innovative teledentistry guidelines and solutions.”


In the meanwhile, dental practices across the country are experimenting on their own.


In Hopkinton, MA, Hopkinton Square Dental is using virtual reality glasses designed by XRHealth to calm nervous patients during routine procedures. The VR glasses replace regular sunglasses worn by patients to protect their eyes.


“It really helps patients disengage – especially the children,” says Cherry Harika, DMD. “They feel like they’re in their own world, and they’re able to relax.”


The two-office dental practice has been using VR glasses for only a couple months, but they’re getting rave reviews from patients – and they’re using the glasses as a marketing tool, in hopes of coaxing more people to overcome their fear and visit the office.


Harika says the mHealth devices aren’t cumbersome, so she and her colleagues can work without being hindered. And they allow her to focus more on her work and less on trying to keep the patient calm and still.


“Sometimes I have to tell them to stop moving their necks,” she says, “but that’s about it.”

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