- Telemedicine can make healthcare more accessible and affordable for millions of people.
- Virtual visits to a dentist are a growing aspect of telehealth.
- Experts say online dental screenings can help people avoid unnecessary in-person appointments and maintain better oral health.
A lot has been said about the rise of telehealth services during the pandemic.
From accessible options that reach groups often disenfranchised from traditional healthcare to simple ways people can remotely augment traditional medical appointments through technology, telehealth has become a common part of life for many.
For millions of people, the telemedicine model has helped increase access to quality.
But can these remote appointments and tools be used for addressing dental care, too?
Healthline spoke with the founder of a unique digital platform that aims to make virtual orthodontia visits easier and additional experts about the pros and cons of teledentistry to paint a picture of just how the modern telemedicine movement is making waves in dental care.
Dr. Adam Schulhof, DMD, CEO and co-founder of Grin, said he was way ahead of the COVID-19-fueled telemedicine boom when he first started thinking of ways to make orthodontic care more accessible to patients.
In fact, he said it was on his mind way back in 2002 when he first opened up his orthodontics practice in New York City.
Contrary to the standard understanding of orthodontic care centering on teenagers with braces, Schulhof told Healthline that about 95 percent of those visiting his practice were busy adults.
These adult patients were looking for dental care to straighten their teeth and correct their bites, among other services. However, they had a hard time squeezing in monthly visits to the dentist because of their busy schedules.
Flash forward to the 2010s, and Schulhof said the market was being flooded with teledentistry businesses like SmileDirectClub that gave customers at-home orthodontic solutions.
He said one flaw with this kind of business is that they weren’t tied to the personal care that stems from a relationship with one’s own dentist.
“Unfortunately, even though we love to talk about ‘disruption’ and ‘innovation’ in tech, when you’re talking about healthcare, when you are circumventing the supply channel and the supply channel happens to be your doctor, we have a problem — it’s no longer ‘healthcare,’” he said.
“Patients were coming into my practice saying they had gone with treatment through some of these consumer-direct companies and their bites were so messed up,” he added.
Schulfhof said there needed to be better vetted, more medically-sound answers to this consumer demand for accessible, quick, at-home orthodontic care that didn’t necessarily involve constant in-person appointments at a dentist’s office.
Enter Grin, the company he founded in 2019 with Pamela Oren-Artzi and Alon Lipnik that’s designed to offer orthodontic care from the comfort of home in partnership with one’s trusted local dentist.
The goal is to facilitate virtual orthodontia visits conducted with local dentists to regularly monitor the progress of one’s orthodontic care.
This at-home care consists of the company’s app, through which customers can communicate and share information with the company’s partner dentists, as well as using the Grin Scope and Grin Scope mini. These are FDA-listed devices that attach to your smartphone camera in order to take scans of your teeth that can be shared with a dentist in real time.
These virtual consultations are meant to limit time in a dentist’s office and seamlessly fit in with dental patients’ busy schedules, but do so under the direction and with the consultation of dental professionals who understand your specific orthodontic needs.
If a problem comes up, you can consult a Grin specialist on a call, then schedule in-person appointments when needed.
Like other telehealth models that have become popular, Schulhof sees this as a way to use modern technology to augment traditional medical care.
The company also recently announced a partnership with Oral-B to help connect users to the appropriate products to better perfect their brushing and flossing practices as a big part of their oral care.
Today, Schulhof said the company has about 20,000 patients who are using Grin’s services.
“Usually, patients go in once a month. By using Grin, you can reduce those in-person visits by more than 50 percent. Orthodontists can increase convenience to the patient. We are in a period where we are proving out a lot of the things we were originally hypothesizing,” he said.
Back in June 2021, a piece in the journal Compendium of Continuing Education in Dentistry took a look at the increasing reality of teledentistry approaches to oral care as COVID-19 upended in-person healthcare appointments.
One of the authors of that paper, Dr. Robert S. Glickman, DMD, associate dean for clinical affairs and hospital relations and professor and chair of the NYU Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, told Healthline that it’s important to note just how disruptive the pandemic was to traditional dental care.
He notes how at the height of the health crisis during the first half of 2020, “all dentistry, certainly in New York, ceased, except for significant emergencies.”
“When you have office-based dentistry for routine procedures, teledentistry was one means where continuity of care could be maintained,” Glickman added.
It created a big paradigm shift, where suddenly specialists and general dentists had to reorient how they approached care, on call for Zoom-style meetings.
This brought with it some challenges because not everyone has access to high-speed internet, smartphones, or computers with clear camera feeds that can make these meetings run smoothly.
Now that we’re in a period where people are mostly returning to traditional in-person appointments, he said teledentistry appointments can be a good way to augment traditional care for those who have access to the technology that can make it work.
For instance, if you’re unable to travel to your dentist’s office or need a quick consultation during off times, like the weekend or the holiday season, teledentistry appointments could be a way to have a needed check-in for any concerns about your dental health.
Similarly, people with disabilities who might not be able to easily travel to a dental facility can benefit from some remote dental screening appointments.
That being said, a lot of this can be “labor intensive” for the dentist, he added.
“People use cellphones, iPad device, or laptops, and again, conducting these appointments successfully means having the ability to hold the camera just right,” Glickman said.
“Those are rather less sophisticated ways of going about this, but they can enable the provider to determine whether somebody needs to be seen urgently, whether or not there is need to come in and travel when activity in a clinic is high, or there is an issue preventing unnecessary visits,” he said.
Glickman said information, screening appointments, and ways to connect people with a dentist’s office before an appointment are ways teledentistry can be useful. He also said it’s most likely here to stay after the pandemic ultimately passes.
However, he emphasized that teledentistry is not a replacement or substitute for needed in-person care and treatment. It’s a tool that can help make the process more accessible and efficient.
When Schulhof is asked where he imagines his company in the next 5 years, he said he wants Grin to be “the household name for anything ‘oral care.’”
“I want Grin to know my toothpaste and make sure I’m automatically renewing it if I’m running out. I want the thought process to be ‘here, I feel something, let me go on Grin, take a scan of something that might be going on below the gum line,’” he said. “I really want Grin to be the do-all and end-all for oral care.”
Glickman said there is nothing more he appreciates than when a patient of his is concerned about a shift in their oral health and they call him up in the middle of the night or reach out to him with a question.
He said it’s important to stay as vigilant about one’s dental health as they are about any other aspect of their health. If teledentistry technology is a way to make that easier, then he’s all for it as a way to keep making advances in one’s oral health and hygiene.
“You can see how this ability to convey information back and forth really provides a much more efficient… thorough level of care,” Glickman added.