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Teledentistry Emerges in the Rocky Mountains

The patients can be almost anywhere.

An innovative teledentistry effort at Peak Vista Community Health Centers in Colorado has brought in new patients from a host of locations. Many patients get a dental consult from home. A few have been driving in their cars. (The dentists tell them to pull over to continue the visit). 

Teledentistry saves people time and money by allowing dentists to get started before an in-office visit. This has improved scheduling overall, freeing up time slots for patients in urgent need of an in-person visit and helping those who cannot get in right away. “If they’ve got an infection in their mouth, I can get them started on antibiotics,” said Dr. Meredith Hudson, Peak Vista’s Regional Dental Director.

Some, including one of the first teledentistry patients, have connected from their workplaces. “She was actually in a stairwell at work. It’s huge if we can save them a visit,” Hudson said.

Many patients are trying to assess how serious a problem really is, but do not have much scheduling flexibility due to work duties. They hesitate to travel to a clinic because it would require taking time off from work, resulting in a loss of income for many.

Peak Vista started offering teledentistry early this year with support from HRSA’s Optimizing Virtual Care grant program.  Despite challenges with information technology systems during the first days, the effort is growing steadily. Some patients will call in using a personal computer, but most use smart phones that have video capability. Hudson noted that she sometimes finds herself saying things that would have been unthinkable a few years ago, such as “Open your mouth; turn your phone.”

The service is so new that patients rarely ask for it; instead, health center staff may suggest an online visit if someone calls asking for a first appointment. “Most people don’t even know that teledentistry exists,” Hudson said.

Overall, this innovative approach helps to expand access to oral health care and improve delivery while lowering costs. Meanwhile, patients benefit from the increased flexibility. 

Peak Vista serves more than 81,000 patients in Colorado's Pikes Peak and East Central regions.