By Susan Richards
The dental industry continues to rebound as the world turns yet another corner in the ever-shifting pandemic. Since the early days of COVID-19, the American Dental Association (ADA), through the Health Policy Institute (HPI), has conducted extensive surveys and provided data to document the impact and ongoing recovery of dentists and dental practices.
As of last month, dentists reported their appointment schedules were 83.4% full, with 70% of them expressing confidence in the full recovery of their practice. This has come a long way from most practices across the country shutting down completely or only handling emergencies in the spring of 2020. Emerging from these numbers was the need – and success – of using alternative methods to deliver oral healthcare, namely through virtual and mobile dentistry.
Delivering Dentistry by Tech and Tires
Long before the pandemic knocked out regular, accessible dental care, the history of bringing dentistry to those who needed it was tackled by the military. A group of dentists provided the army with a “dental ambulance” in 1917, and portable – or mobile – dentistry was a regular practice in World War II.
In 1994, the U.S. Army established the Total Dental Access (TDA) Project which allowed patients stationed at one base to take intraoral photos and send them to another base for follow-up periodontal care. The project expanded to web-based teledentistry in 1997.
With so many people missing out on regular dental appointments over the past two years – either for checkups or treatment – it’s no wonder that the mobile and digital means of delivery are experiencing a renaissance of necessity.
Technology has advanced at a breakneck speed in recent decades, and dentistry continues to benefit from the growth. Virtual dental visits may involve a live interaction via video call, where a patient can receive a consultation, follow-up care, or have the dentist actually look at a tooth or problem on camera. This kind of connection, both digital and emotional, can maintain contact with patients who may otherwise put off care for reasons such as time, money, or dental anxiety.
Today’s dentist also benefits from improved, essential technology that includes an intraoral camera. Photos of the mouth and teeth can allow the doctor to diagnose and plan treatment remotely, as well as educate the patient with visuals that are easier for them to understand than radiographs.
According to the American Teledentistry Association, the practice of expanded virtual care has been shown to improve patients’ dental hygiene, save them missed work time, reduce the cost of care, increase access to underserved communities, and stay current with today’s forms of communication.
Due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, new platforms, and technological advances, as well as government funding, the global teledentistry market is projected to reach $2.6 billion by 2027 – an increase of 17.1% from 2020.
These days, almost every service or product can be delivered to your door, and dentistry is no different. Since the early days of portable dental care on the battlefield, alternative methods of delivering oral healthcare have expanded. Mobile and portable dental facilities may utilize vans, trailers, or RVs to serve locations and situations that include:
- Preschools and K-12 schools.
- Nursing homes and assisted living communities.
- Private corporations.
- Shelters and home-insecure communities.
- Home-bound patients.
With today’s technology, mobile units can include imaging equipment, intraoral cameras, scanners, 3D printers, and more that, when combined, can provide the same cost and time-saving benefits of telehealth. In 2019, The Incisor reported on a startup called Henry The Dentist, which provides mobile, state-of-the-art care to the New Jersey area.
Many other mobile dental clinics traverse the streets of the U.S., and thanks to additional funding earmarked for portable and mobile dentistry (PMD) in the Action for Dental Health Act of 2017, we can expect to see more.
Expanded Access to Dental Care is Key
Who benefits from the increased use of teledentistry and mobile or portable dental healthcare? Everyone from the busy professional to the underserved patient in remote rural communities, to the dentist and practice itself.
Initiatives like the Eastman Institute for Oral Health are using teledentistry to help reach more underserved children in upstate New York, and Smiles by Delivery brings mobile dental care to senior communities in the metro Phoenix area.
As the coronavirus concerns ease, dentists are currently facing the challenge of staffing shortages according to the latest HPI survey. Instituting more digital and virtual tools can help to bridge that gap as well as to save time and money.
Dentists may choose to implement teledentistry or mobile services in their practice in response to the pandemic, their community needs, or temporary staffing concerns. Ultimately, providing access to dental care for those in need is always a powerful impetus.
Author: Susan Richards is a staff writer at DOCS Education. With over 20 years of experience in local journalism and business marketing, Susan’s career includes award-winning feature writing, as well as creating content with context for a wide variety of industries.