On October 26, 2018, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Dentistry hosted a teledentistry summit to discuss initiatives to improve access to oral health for all North Carolinians. Led by the UNC-CH School of Dentistry’s Director of Telehealth, Shaun Matthews, DDS, MD, the summit brought together key stakeholders from across the country – from educators, practitioners, legislators, students, public health experts, policy makers, telehealth pioneers and many more.
“This summit was a unique event in that its primary goal was to bring together and engage leaders in North Carolina, all of whom have it within their purview to effect change and improve access to oral health care for all North Carolinians, especially those in the rural and underserved communities,” said Matthews. “It was an absolute pleasure to have been part of such a successful team effort, led by my colleagues here at the UNC School of Dentistry; it has set the scene for greater things to come.”
In North Carolina, there are three counties without any practicing dentists. Nearly 13 percent of kindergarten-aged children have untreated tooth decay, and 21 percent of adults 65 years old and older have lost all of their natural teeth. Teledentistry offers a way to reach these patients and provide oral health care services in a way that is convenient for them.
Teledentistry models typically rely on dental hygienists to be the eyes and ears for dentists in the community, referring patients as needed for further treatment. One of the main challenges to setting up a teledentistry model in the state is North Carolina’s limitations on scope of practice for dental hygienists. An important part of the teledentistry effort will likely include advocacy to the state legislature to expand dental hygienists scope of practice, allowing oral health professionals to provide more convenient and comprehensive patient care.
Paul Glassman, director of the Pacific Center at the University of the Pacific Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry in San Francisco, California, is one of the pioneers of a teledentistry model called, “virtual dental homes.” Glassman was invited to the UNC-CH School of Dentistry teledentistry summit to share his experience.
Glassman’s six-year study (2010-2016) of the virtual dental homes determined that two-thirds of children and half of seniors and those with disabilities in long-term care facilities could have their oral health needs met by dental hygienists in the community, without the need to see a dentist in person. The system also delivered more prevention and early intervention at less cost per patient than the current state dental care services system.
Since the summit, Matthews is looking to collaborate with UNC Health Care’s virtual care centers with summit sponsors to build pilot projects. His long-term goal is to develop a virtual oral health care center within the UNC-CH School of Dentistry.
His model will cover three delivery areas: (1) a focus on providing care to our state community, especially those in rural and underserved areas; (2) incorporating telehealth education and technology into the school’s contemporary curriculum; and (3) adopting an entrepreneurial mindset to come up with creative ways to supplement state funding for the school through teledentistry.
The summit was generously co-sponsored by the Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation, the Duke Endowment, the North Carolina Dental Society and Delta Dental.