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What is the future of telehealth in dentistry?

Given the difficulties of conducting in-person dental appointments during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, telehealth will likely continue to play a vital role in the provision of dental services. (Image: Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock)

LEIPZIG, Germany: As a result of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, the vast majority of dental practices around the world have been partially or completely shut down at times, and routine dental check-ups have been postponed as a result. Whereas some practices have reopened to offer in-person treatment—albeit with enhanced personal protective equipment measures—others have modified their services to offer teledentistry.

According to an article published by DentistryIQ, teledentistry’s history extends further back than one might think. It was first introduced in a project conducted by the US Department of Defense in 1994 and, over the ensuing years, was increasingly adopted by more dentists, primarily by those working in geographically remote locations.

In 2015, the clear aligner treatment provider SmileDirectClub launched a teledentistry-first model that allowed consumers to purchase do-it-yourself (DIY) aligner kits with supervision provided through video consultations with a health professional. The company grew steadily over the following years before holding an initial public offering in September 2019 that yielded mixed results. Meanwhile, its remote aligner therapy approach continued to draw criticism from orthodontists who insisted that a trained professional had to supervise this kind of treatment.

Nevertheless, SmileDirectClub’s virtual approach was proved to have certain benefits when dental practices across the globe were forced to effectively close their doors to patients in March 2020. Though most countries have since eased restrictions and allowed practices to reopen to some degree for routine treatments, precautionary measures in place have resulted in certain vulnerable patient groups opting for alternatives such as teledentistry.

Last year, the UK-based dentist Dr Yasmin George and Australia’s Dr Jalal Khan shared their teledentistry experiences with Dental Tribune International. George outlined a particular instance in which she had, with the aid of a phone camera, successfully instructed a patient’s husband on how to seal off his wife’s newly broken tooth “with a bit of temporary filling material”.

Both George and Khan stated that they would continue to offer teledentistry services, particularly during the early pre-diagnostic stages of dental treatment. However, they were also united in opposition to the idea of dentist-guided DIY dentistry, such as that described in the example above, becoming a more common treatment option in the future.

Looking forward

The pandemic is unlikely to end anytime soon, and in-person dental check-ups will continue to be limited. The potential for teledentistry is clear. A recent survey conducted by the DentaQuest Partnership for Oral Health Advancement found that 75% of dentists who already provide teledentistry services expect the volume of remotely consulted patients to either stay steady or increase over the coming 12 months. However, only 34% of those surveyed actually see, or plan to see, patients via teledentistry platforms. This suggests that many dentists are either unaware of this type of technology or are unwilling to engage with it.

Whereas companies like SmileDirectClub have pursued a direct-to-consumer route, others remain firm on using teledentistry to prioritise the dentist–patient relationship. On the one hand, Henry Schein announced in September that it would be offering dentists MouthWatch’s TeleDent, a teledentistry platform that utilises videoconferencing to allow practitioners to conduct pre-visit screenings, consultations and even emergency triaging virtually. The American start-up Dentulu, on the other hand, bridges this divide by offering patients a mobile app through which they can “connect with a licensed dentist within 5 minutes from anywhere in the world”, according to the company.

Regardless of the form it takes, it seems apparent that telehealth will continue to play a considerable role in the provision of dental services, at least as long as SARS-CoV-2-related restrictions remain in place.

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