We live in a time when technological changes are common. These changes induce both anticipation and anxiety. Rapidly changing use of technology is also a constant in our complex health care system. While we have seen increasing use of health care assisted by remote access to health specialists and increasing coordination between health providers over the past several years, Missouri is about to embark on something completely new.
Missouri passed legislation in the 2016 session that allows for the development of teledentistry for the first time in Missouri history and well ahead of most other states (only a few states utilize teledentistry now, including Colorado, California and Hawaii). Teledentistry holds the promise of increasing access to dental care in areas of the state where dental specialists are not available. Details are being worked on now that will allow us to move to implementation, likely starting with a few projects in rural areas of the state.
Teledentistry reduces the time and cost burdens of traveling outside of one’s community. Using allied personnel at a local site, teledentistry operates through cloud-based electronic health records and communication with a dentist located remotely. The off-site dentist can review records and make decisions about needed dental treatment, including where and when. On-site staff can work within the extent of their existing practice, including the provision of prevention and early intervention procedures. When travel is necessary – either travel by the dentist or by the dental patient – time is used efficiently and focused on provision of needed dental treatment.
By making full use of the current professional dental workforce – dentists, hygienists and assistants – teledentistry will help to push back at the impact of the retirement of many practicing Missouri dentists. Many of Missouri’s dentists are reaching retirement age. A rural community is fortunate if there is one local practicing dentist. His or her retirement may mean that traveling to another community offers the only opportunity for dental care. For individuals and families with limited resources, travel to the next county over – or further – is often not achievable, forcing people to wait until untreated dental conditions result in an expensive trip to the emergency room that will alleviate pain, but will likely provide no dental treatment.
Teledentistry holds the promise of creating a virtual dental home supported by a team of professionals working beyond the limitations of geography. A dental home is an important aspect of providing care tailored to each individual based on dental history and needs. Many people do not have a regular place of dental care. Every new contact for dental care is a start-over. A telehealth-connected team of dental professionals is able to access the history of care and treatment, saving time at each new contact.
All of these changes are likely to improve the overall experience of care while reducing costs and increasing the oral health of Missouri as a whole.
As dental professionals and the public grow accustomed to the increased use of telehealth technology in dental care, we can anticipate an increased access to care, resulting in more Missourians ready to go to work and school without the debilitating pain and limitations of untreated dental conditions.