Even as the telehealth market becomes more important to the American healthcare landscape, you might not think of dentistry as a video-call candidate. After all, dentistry is pretty hands-on, right? The cleaning, the X-rays, the various poking and prodding: a dental visit is all about hands in the patients’ mouth. How could that go virtual?
But hands-on practice is not the whole story. Diagnosis, medication, and oral health recommendations are part of the teledentistry movement, which aims to improve the dental health of a nation of dentist-averse patients through a suite of no-touch, no-nerves services.
Teledentistry aims to fill a gap in oral health. Surveys generally pin the number of Americans with dental anxiety at about 35-40%, and this keeps people from booking not just their check-ups, but even persistent or urgent dental issues. The anxiety of visiting the dentist for a concern outside of regular cleanings can be alleviated with a video-conference, during which the dentist may be able to make a diagnosis, outline a care plan, issue a prescription, and give the patient an expectation of any in-person visits required.
Additionally, teledentistry provides oral health maintenance and education to under-served and rural communities, where a visit to the dentist might mean a long, prohibitive commute. Preventive oral healthcare is growing increasingly important in the medical community, and can reduce overall healthcare costs in the long run. Rural areas, however, are particularly susceptible to a lack of dental care options. Teledentistry programs designed to improve oral health in rural communities have been popping up across the country.
Recently, teledentistry has seen more mainstream expansion as part of the growth of telehealth. As many dentists were working within the limits of shelter-in-place requirements, more practices began to venture into teledentistry for the first time. In
Do healthcare and dental plans cover teledentistry?
With the need for expanded telehealth due to the COVID-19 pandemic, more large dental plans are working to incorporate teledentistry into their healthcare plans. Delta Dental announced they’d accept claims for teledentistry in March 2020. Cigna launched Dental Virtual Care in April, 2020 with an aim to continue post-pandemic. These expansions are typically for “virtual limited evaluations and triage,” rather than the far-reaching oral health and preventive care strategies provided by teledentistry pioneers. However, telehealth doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
Demand for telehealth was already strong before the pandemic — in 2017, a study by Parks Associates found 60% of U.S. households with broadband service were interested in virtual medical visits.
The interest has only grown along with the need. Jump to May 2020, when telehealth has become a regular feature of life for several months, and we find that 76% of Americans in a McKinsey survey say they’ll continue to use telehealth going forward. By April 2020, the ADA Health Policy Institute said more than 25% of dentists were offering some form of virtual evaluation to patients, even as nearly 80% of practices were closed completely due to COVID-19 concerns. Virtual care can sidestep lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders, not to mention ease waiting room anxiety.
Will teledentistry continue to expand alongside the telehealth boom? As dental practices continue to explore virtual medicine, it might just become common practice to video-call your dentist.