Teledentistry has been around for over 15 years and is proven to improve dental care for patients who may not otherwise be able to visit a dentist, according to the Journal of International Society of Preventive & Community Dentistry. But the COVID-19 pandemic is leading more people to look for telehealth options that replace their traditional in-person appointments.
What is teledentistry?
Telehealth dentistry, or teledentistry, is the practice of providing dental care services using a virtual platform — such as video conferencing — rather than in person.
How does teledentistry work?
All telehealth services have four modes of care, and teledentistry is no different, according to the American Dental Association (ADA).
|Live video||To facilitate real-time interaction between a dentist and their patient.||A patient schedules a video conference with their dentist to examine their teeth and gums.|
|Remote patient monitoring (RPM)||To track the patient’s progress virtually.||A patient uses an electronic dental device or QR-code to monitor tooth brushing.|
|Store-and-forward||To transfer medical records and other health data using a secure electronic platform.||A dentist views previous patient records and diagnostic results from tests or procedures.|
|Mobile Health||To transmit health information using a smartphone or tablet.||A dentist offers educational materials through their website.|
What’s changed during COVID-19?
Like other medical practices, dentists are trying to limit in-person appointments and procedures to emergency only, which saves personal protective equipment (PPE) resources for frontline workers and keeps patients from breaking stay-at-home recommendations.
Many dentists are turning to teledentistry to meet dental needs without an in-person appointment, according to a 2020 study of the industry.
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What happens in a teledentistry session?
You can expect your telehealth session to be similar to a standard in-person consultation. Depending on your dentist, you may run through the following steps:
- Your dentist either sends you an invitation or link to the session.
- Click the link and connect to your session.
- Explain any dental issues you’re having and answer the dentist’s questions.
- The dentist may ask you to use your camera to show any swelling, sores or lesions.
- The dentist may consult your dental records and give advice.
- The dentist can also prescribe any medication or specialty oral care needs.
- After the session is done, you can log out of the application.
Who can provide teledentistry?
The regulations vary between states, but the ADA confirms most state-licensed dental providers can use teledentistry to deliver services. Texas is one exception, as the law doesn’t support teledentistry appointments. And that doesn’t just apply to dentists who practice within the states. Most online teledentistry services indicate they aren’t able to offer services to patients living in Texas.
How much does teledentistry cost?
Under ADA policy, teledentistry services should cost the same as the in-person equivalent. To give you an idea of how much you might pay, a routine exam costs an average of $44.10 without insurance according to the latest ADA data.
Does dental insurance cover teledentistry?
As of 2020, ADA policy is that all dental insurers should cover teledentistry in the same way as in-person services.
The information below is general. For the most accurate answer, call your insurer’s benefits department and ask about their telemedicine reimbursement policies.
|Private health insurance||Each dental insurer has its own policy, but those who follow the ADA guidelines should cover teledentistry services the same as any other dental care service.|
|Medicare||Most Medicare plans don’t cover dental care, including dental procedures, cleanings and fillings.|
However, Medicare Part A (Hospital Insurance) pays for certain dental services you receive during a hospital stay.
|Medicaid||Each state has its own rules and regulations surrounding dental coverage under Medicaid, according to the Center for Connected Health Policy.|
Currently, only the following states provide coverage for teledentistry: Arizona, California, Georgia, Minnesota, North Carolina, New York, and Washington.
But it’s worth checking with your state’s Medicaid department, as some states have made changes due to the pandemic.
Which conditions can teledentistry treat?
You won’t get your biannual cleaning or x-rays, but teledentistry does offer the following services:
- Evaluation of a specific complaint
- Post-operative checkup
- Follow-up on a previous trauma or an ongoing condition that needs monitoring
- Case coordination with other healthcare providers
- Pain management
What can’t be treated with teledentistry?
Teledentistry isn’t suitable for these situations:
- Emergency dental conditions
- Conditions that need to be diagnosed with an X-ray or other diagnostic tool
- In-person services such as cleaning or whitening
- In-office procedures such as fillings
- Dental surgical procedures
Make the most of your teledentistry session
For a successful teledentistry session, follow these tips:
- Find a quiet, well-lit area in your home. Make sure you aren’t distracted and your dentist can see you clearly.
- Test your tech. Check your Internet connection and make sure you have clear audio. Play around with a few camera angles to ensure your dentist has the best view of your mouth, should that be required.
- Have a flashlight ready. Your dentist may ask you to use a flashlight to help them better see inside your mouth as the exam proceeds.
- Have a family member on hand, if available. A family member can help hold your phone or camera or retract your cheek for better visibility during the exam.
What are the benefits of teledentistry?
Teledentistry has been around for years, but many people don’t know it’s available or the major benefits it offers. These are the advantages, according to the American Teledentistry Association:
- Encourages people to visit the dentist. The convenience of the service allows people who wouldn’t otherwise make time to get their biannual checkup.
- Less expensive. You’ll often pay less for your teledentistry appointment and save money on transportation to and from an office.
- Improves access to care. People who live in rural and remote areas can get access they may not have to in-person care.
- Saves time. You can take less time away from your other responsibilities by skipping the drive to the office and the time spent in the waiting room.
Limitations of teledentistry
On the flipside, teledentistry has its downsides. These include:
- Technological barriers. Patients with inadequate Internet access or computer technology may struggle to work with a dentist’s telehealth system.
- Accuracy of diagnosis. Since a lot of dentistry relies on in-person diagnostic tools, such as x-rays, your teledentistry diagnosis may not be as accurate as it would be in person.
- Some treatments aren’t available. Many standard treatments, such as cleaning and whitening, require an in-person visit.
Ask an expert: In your clinical experience, which conditions can and can’t be treated virtually?
Those looking for a virtual consultation are seeking one of two types of information: Relieving pain/immediate issue or understanding future treatment. For those seeking immediate attention, between their explanation of their issue and seeing the site virtually, a diagnosis for either an antibiotic or future visit is appropriate and can usually be cared for during the call. Please note, this is only for my current patients of record.
For those looking for future care, the virtual platform is fantastic for building a relationship and trust with each other. Virtual meeting allows the doctor’s face and personality to be seen without the double mask, shield, cap, etc. as, in the current environment, it is impossible to have face-to-face without it.
How should patients prepare for a session with you?
Although nothing is needed to prepare for a session, we ask them to share X-rays if they have them. It is helpful to have a few specific questions, an idea of what they would like to change about their dental condition or where they are looking to go with treatment.
Do you think virtual consults will continue to be popular post-pandemic?
I believe virtual consults will continue to be popular post-pandemic as it is a way to step beyond a phone call with the dentist’s team and meet directly with the dentist. For those who are looking for immediate gratification, it serves that purpose quickly and efficiently. Anyone looking for long-term and high-end aesthetic dental care should get to know the dentist with whom they will be spending quite a bit of time and money, and literally meeting face-to-face is always a great beginning.
How to find a telehealth dentist
Unfortunately, the ADA’s Find-a-Dentist service doesn’t allow you to search for teledentistry as a tag, but there are other options available.
- Ask your current dentist if telehealth appointments are available
- Search your dental insurance database for teledentistry providers
- Search for a teledentistry service group online
How secure is a teledentistry session?
Teledentistry typically uses secure applications designed to meet HIPAA regulations to protect a patient’s privacy.
But due to COVID-19, the federal government has temporarily decided to waive fees associated with noncompliance to HIPAA standards that occur when a dentist uses more common apps, such as Facetime, Skype or Zoom. If patient privacy is a concern for you, ask your dentist for their security and HIPAA compliance details before your first appointment.
Teledentistry is a good way to improve dental care for people who don’t have access to a dentist in their area or who don’t want to make time for an in-person appointment. It’s also been a helpful tool during the pandemic to make sure people still get dental care while limiting their exposure to the virus.
But not all services and diagnostic tools are available in a virtual environment. To confirm teledentistry is covered under your dental plan, speak to your dental insurance company before booking an appointment.