Dentistry has always been the ‘odd one out’ in healthcare. While the mouth and teeth only cover a relatively small part of the human body, no one will deny that oral hygiene is of utmost importance for overall health. Dentists require lengthy and intensive training in order to qualify for taking care of our precious pearly whites. We all want beautiful smiles and healthy mouths, and we live in an age of health digitization. What are the digital challenges and opportunities that today’s dentists face?
We can all think of certain examples how the online world and data collection improve our lives from a medical point of view – electronic medical records, online access to healthcare information and standardized software. How to relate this to dentistry? Well, IT and telecom could seriously change your regular dentist’s appointment. The concept of ‘teledentistry’ entails the use of information technology and telecommunications for dental care, consultation, education and public awareness – where in-person contact between patient and dentist does not always take place. Patients can provide the dentist photos and videos, simply taken with an iPhone X or with specialized apps. Think of other examples of telemedicine where a GP chats to its patients online or dermatology apps where skin conditions can be examined digitally. Particularly in the field of orthodontics, teledentistry provides for a great way for the specialist to undertake regular check-ups and monitor the progress of teeth movement.
In the USA, teledentistry has been included in certain insurance coverages. In Australia, there are promising opportunities in remote and rural areas and for those unable to travel, to make use of teledentistry. It can seriously reduce costs and save time, resulting in a lower barrier to actually make the effort to go and (virtually) see a dentist. Research shows that adults, and mainly elderly, prefer visiting their GP over a dentist for teeth issues such as pain and inflammation because they consider dentists inaccessible. A British study concluded that the majority of orthodontic consultants supported the idea of teledentistry, making their work more accessible to other dentists and patients.
There are lots of dental treatments and assessments that could profit much from telehealth. It is expected to make huge steps in the near future. Build a good digital system, optimize data collection, provide insights from those portfolios, assess medical history and previous appointments…: and the computer will be able to analyze and advise on possible diagnoses and treatments – more than a single dentist operating alone. However, robots cannot take over entirely. We would seriously undermine a dentist’s profession when we assume that a dentist only checks for cavities and cleans our teeth. Dental hygiene is more than that. A large part of the job is to track down the cause of that inflammation, to learn about the patient’s wishes, financial possibilities and other medical conditions. That is not always easy to substitute with computers. That being said, teledentistry is an exciting, promising tool that challenges dental practitioners to get creative, step up into the world of e-health and change oral health disparities all over the world.