Teledentistry: something to smile about

  • Woman using dental software

Access to quality dental care is critical for women’s overall health and wellbeing. While women tend to keep up with their dental appointments and maintain better oral care routines, they face some overall oral health disadvantages.

Women account for 90 per cent of temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders (chronic pain or soreness in the jaw joint) and teeth grinding, as well as increased rates of autoimmune disorders that can dry the mouth. Then there are the hormonal fluctuations of puberty, pregnancy and menopause and associated effects on oral health. Women also report that their childcare responsibilities can delay a visit to the dentist.

Therefore, a considered and tailored approach to women’s oral health is needed in Australia, especially for those facing barriers to dental care because of geography or cost.

With a population as geographically dispersed as Australia’s, teledentistry has the potential to help the 33 per cent of people who reside in regional and remote areas to overcome the barriers they face when accessing traditional dental care.

The adoption of teledentistry by governments, practitioners and private health insurers has the power to deliver big improvements for Australians living in regional communities where, in 2019–20, a quarter of people reported that they needed to see a dental professional but did not – twice as many as in major cities.

Australia has witnessed a growth in dental practitioner numbers; however, the geographic distribution of the workforce remains inequitable and does not closely align with where Australians live. In 2019, the number of full-time equivalent dentists in Australian cities was 65.1 per 100,000 population. This number fell to 45.3 in inner regional areas, then 37.0 in outer regional areas and further to 27.7 in remote and very remote areas.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the issue of accessing dental care, with nearly half of Australians neglecting their oral health by not having a dental health check in the 12 months to December 2020. However, the pandemic has also seen both increased uptake and trust in telehealth services. Globally, innovative new models of care are changing the way people access health services.

Research undertaken by SmileDirectClub indicates that most dental practitioners surveyed felt that teledentistry ‘is quite useful in improving patient management and increasing patient satisfaction’, with 65 per cent of all practitioners agreeing strongly that teledentistry would benefit patients in remote or rural locations. This view is supported by the Australian Dental Association, which states that teledentistry has the potential to be particularly beneficial for rural and remote populations and can be delivered in a real-time manner.

The uptake of teledentistry could also benefit governments in terms of spending, policy goals and health outcomes. The National Oral Health Plan cites access to oral health care and priority populations as two areas for action – so the synergies here are obvious.

Similarly, the financial burden of unnecessary hospitalisations could be combatted with teledentistry services. In 2017–18, there were around 72,000 hospitalisations in Australia for dental conditions that may have been prevented had individuals accessed treatment earlier. The rate of these hospitalisations is substantially higher in very remote areas, with 4.3 per 1,000 population compared to major cities where they occur at a rate of 2.7 per 1,000 population. 

There is a significant opportunity, and equally significant need, to improve oral health and access to dental care for people residing in regional and remote areas of Australia. Teledentistry is the logical and efficient way to do just that. The benefits go far beyond the health and happiness of any one individual and their improved oral health, and that is something to truly smile about.

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