During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, dental professionals have needed to find ways to care for their patients beyond the usual face-to-face examination in dental clinics. If we’re honest, we’ve needed alternatives to face-to-face interaction for many years in the dental industry. Patients have been welcomed at their dental practice while admittedly ill because the loss of production has outweighed team safety. Restructuring and introducing new, modernized electronic ways to provide dental care while reducing the risk of disease transmission and cross-infection are long overdue.
Among the possibilities for resuming safe practice during these times, teledentistry, which has already been around for years, has emerged as a supportive tool for providing remote patient care and monitoring. The obvious advantage of teledentistry is that dentists can care for patients without seeing them in person, minimizing the risk of disease transmission and decreasing the need for consumable products used to prevent cross-contamination.
Beyond this, in terms of infection control (IC), it is the ultimate elimination technique—the principal element of the Hierarchy of Controls pyramid of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)—making it a no-brainer in combating the spread of any disease. The upside-down pyramid that has received much attention during this pandemic recommends eliminating the potential of infection and not letting anyone ill enter the practice. This obviously prevents infection, and it also keeps us from donning the precious and expensive personal protective equipment (PPE) needed for treatment.
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Teleconsultations have also been found to be comparable to face-to-face consultations in communities with limited access to health-care services. We have seen residents in rural locations benefit from this technology because they can receive health care without traveling long distances to see their dentist. For some, this is a true game-changer. Now, we’re seeing practices and patients in both urban and rural areas benefit from teledentistry to prevent disease transmission while continuing patient care.
A preferred alternative
So while initially teledentistry might have been thought of as an interesting but unnecessary option, the pandemic has made it a preferred alternative for more patients, even those close to their dental office. It’s an excellent option for those suffering from a compromised immune system—they welcome this new technology to get regular checkups without exposing themselves to a potentially lethal disease.
As a result, the risk of disease transmission and the necessity for infection control measures are eliminated, meaning there’s less work for the dental office staff. As well, it can save both patients and dental health-care providers time and money in the long run.
An effective tool in risk elimination
Dental care providers can leverage teledentistry to mitigate infection risks while still providing the finest care for their patients. There is no better way to limit the danger of contamination or injury in the workplace than to eliminate it. If we remove or significantly diminish the source of risk, the accompanying risk will cease to exist. While this is often challenging to achieve, teledentistry opens doors to new possibilities for eliminating risks. As such, dental health-care professionals can confidently serve and help their patients without worrying about the spread of disease, during a pandemic or not.
Additionally, because there is no direct contact, teledentistry eliminates the requirement for routinely sterilizing materials and equipment following each patient appointment and for using PPE. This saves costs and makes the already busy working day much less stressful—and leaves more time for teledentistry appointments.
Transforming dental care
A recent survey from CareQuest1 shows that patients who had previous experiences with teledentistry generally had positive views of it. Meanwhile, more than one-third of respondents who had never had a virtual appointment were keen to try it if given the opportunity. Almost 39% of respondents who have had a virtual consultation said that their experience was comparable to an in-person session. In comparison, 36% of those indicated that they were very likely to opt for a virtual consultation again in the future.
The possibilities technology brings are slowly transforming dental care. With teledentistry as a helpful tool during these times, dental care providers can safely reestablish a sense of stability in continuing to care for their patients, even from a distance. And although we are still learning about the ever-mutating COVID-19, we now have relatively clear guidelines on what we can do to safeguard our staff and our patients during face-to-face visits.
The pandemic has highlighted IC concerns, and there is now a greater emphasis on implementing enhanced infection prevention and control procedures. Everything from regularly disinfecting all surfaces and equipment and screening staff and patients to wearing personal PPE such as face masks is now essential. But the risk elimination possibilities of teledentistry, which we know are more effective than any other infection prevention protocol, give reason to be hopeful. What’s more, teledentistry can benefit practices during times of quarantine and isolation when there is a surge in cases. With all these reasons, we can be optimistic that teledentistry is a valuable and secure access point for patients to receive dental care that can benefit both patients and practices.
1. State of oral health equity in America 2021. CareQuest. Accessed January 28, 2022. https://www.carequest.org/state-of-oral-health-equity-america-2021