‘When was your last dental’ appointment?’ Even in normal times you may struggle to remember off the top of your head. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s become even more unlikely that people have been able to schedule their regular dentist appointments.
In March 2020, the American Dental Association (ADA) recommended that all dentistry practices close for everything except emergencies and while 99% of dentists have since reopened, the number of patients visiting offices remains about 20% below usual levels. This means millions of Americans are delaying dental appointments, which is putting the nation’s oral health at risk and is leaving surgeries to deal with large backlogs.
Smart dental to the rescue
Luckily, technology can help bridge this gap. From smartphone cameras, to connected toothbrushes to dental apps, consumers now have access to dental expertise, with no need for specialist hardware. This gives people a safe, secure and convenient way to manage their oral health and get clinical recommendations from a licensed dentist on any dental issues. Which means that patients are now able to turn to the devices in their pockets as a first port of call for dental advice rather than rush to a surgery.
COVID-19 has completely shifted the landscape of dental care and we have seen the growing use of Teledentistry as a remote screening technique. This enables the assessment component of dental care to be completed through the use of devices such as smartphones rather than through direct face-to-face contact.
Importantly, through remote screenings dentists can lower the number of patients being sent to the already burdened dental practices and hospitals, limiting the amount of uninfected people being unnecessarily exposed to COVID-19. This has led to demand for remote care reaching an all-time high across the entire healthcare sector, accelerating the move towards remote dental screenings, diagnostics, consultations and treatment plans via video or still images from a smartphone.
Increasingly we are seeing dental professionals performing initial assessments for non-emergency dental concerns remotely to determine if a trip to the dentist or a certain procedure is necessary. While this diversion from the emergency room is a practical necessity during the COVID-19 crisis to avoid cross-infection and preserve scarce resources, it is also seen as a harbinger for the future of dental treatment; the vision of smart dental treatment of the future is one where patients can access quality, personalized care, regular inspections and initial treatment from the comfort of their own home and at a time which suits them. This also allows dentist surgeries to prioritize specific, necessary treatments, making the process more efficient and bringing value to both dentists and patients.
As technology is allowing consumers to speak to experts about specific issues, they can also use apps to discuss their overall dental health, get general questions answered, seek tailored advice and improve knowledge around oral hygiene. This allows for routine oral care and prevention to continue while the public are still hesitant to visit the dentist's, meaning a better level of oral health is sustained generally across the nation, and some of the strain on dentists is alleviated.
Future of Oral Health
Teledentistry is just one of a number of smart dental innovations that are defining our experience of oral care. Alongside techniques such as Teledentistry we have smart toothbrushes that will generate a 3D map of your mouth and can tell you if you are under or over brushing, augmented reality that will help train dentists and assist them during procedures, and the use of 3D printing to produce crowns and implants for patients.
We are already seeing smartphones such as the Samsung Galaxy offering 3D cameras that can provide depth information to the dentists – and as with all technology innovations it will not be long before this feature is ubiquitous. As the quality of the imaging data improves this will also enable the use of AI pattern-matching to guide dentists in their diagnosis and treatment plans and open the world to a new era of dental science.
While the emphasis today is on clearing the backlog of dental work, the potential is to use the technology innovations caused by the crisis for a quantum leap in the provision of dental care.