From banking, dating, and ride hailing, to prenatal checkups for expectant mothers and blood glucose checks for diabetics, there is almost nothing we cannot do from our smartphones.
Now we can add dental checkups to that list.
While a dentist cannot fill a cavity or pull a wisdom tooth in a virtual setting, he or she can make basic diagnoses, triage emergencies, and answer oral care questions, according to Chris Davis, vice president of Ancillary Services at Capital BlueCross.
“Teledentistry can be a helpful service for people who live far from a dental office, or in the case of the pandemic, when people are staying home to avoid exposure,” Davis said.
Teledentistry may sound new to some, but it is a subset of the rapidly growing telemedicine market that Morder Intelligence, a market research firm, said is on track to be a $131 billion industry by 2025.
A November 2018 Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services report to congress concluded telehealth could help provide quality care to many populations “without increasing costs.” In addition, a 2015 prediction by Willis Towers Watson, a global business-consulting firm, concluded that telemedicine could save U.S. employers nearly $6 billion annually in healthcare costs.
There is a strong link between oral health and overall health, according to Dr. Jennifer Chambers, chief medical officer at Capital BlueCross.
A 2018 study led by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center, and Tufts University School of Medicine and Cancer Center found an increased risk of cancer in those suffering from advanced gum disease. An American Academy of Periodontology report showed people with gum disease are almost twice as likely to suffer from coronary artery disease.
A 2019 study funded partly by Capital BlueCross showed higher rates of hospitalizations and emergency department visits for people who did not, or could not access preventive dental services.
“There are so many examples where poor oral health can lead to very serious conditions, including heart disease,” Dr. Chambers said.
The arrival of the coronavirus, and the resulting societal retreat into isolation and social distancing, accelerated the telemedicine and teledentistry trends.
As it is with telemedicine, teledentistry can increase access to care for underserved, rural, Medicaid, and aging populations, as well as for people who fear going to the dentist, according to Davis. “The relevance and importance of teledentistry has grown tremendously,” he said.
“Many dental insurers were not covering teledentistry visits prior to the pandemic,” Davis said. But in March, the Pennsylvania Department of Health directed dental professionals to cease all but urgent and emergency procedures, and encouraged teledentistry services in cases involving pain from infection.
Individuals may use teledentistry to consult with a dentist through video conference, or send images for review about pain, an abscess or other urgent issue.
Dental plans offered through the Capital BlueCross family of companies began covering in-network teledentistry consultation with no member cost share on April 15, and recently extended the no cost-share program through Dec. 31. Capital BlueCross also is waiving frequency limits for these consultations and evaluations, and covered teledentistry exams do not count towards a member’s annual oral exam frequency allowance.
“The goal is to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to reduce or eliminate the need for a member to go to an emergency room,” Davis said.
“In some cases, dentists may determine there is a need for a tooth extraction or other in-office emergency procedure,” he added. “Individuals are encouraged to call their dentist to see if they provide teledentistry.”