With COVID-19, teledentistry skyrocketed into the dental headlines in 2020. Now, with dental patients preparing for open insurance enrollment, what benefit will they see in teledentistry and will it become even bigger in 2021? That's one of the biggest questions I wanted to ask Dr. Maria Kunstadter and Dr. Katina Spadoni as this year winds down.
Kunstadter is the founder of the TeleDentists, which offers solutions for virtual, 24-hour dental care. Kunstadter's company works with Anthem, where Spadoni serves as the dental director. These two were kind enough to spend time with me recently to discuss the perceived and real value of teledentistry as part of dental benefits in 2021.
"I think teledentistry is going to be very important in the new year because we have seen the impact of what teledentistry can do for our members," Spadoni said. "We have seen the impact of patients receiving the care they need on an emergency basis and not having to go to the emergency room because of dental pain.
"I think if you're looking for dental benefits in 2021, teledentistry is absolutely something that needs to be in the package."
Kunstadter believes that in an era where Zoom has become a part of our everyday lives and communication over the internet has become second nature for so many, teledentistry is poised for great growth in the days and weeks ahead.
"The genie is out of the bottle with telehealth and teledentistry, and we're not going to be able to put it back into the bottle," she said. "Companies that want to provide the service for their members and we, as an industry, have to realize that by industry standards, 40% of people do not use those dental benefits. We're talking about a population where roughly 180 million people will not see a dentist this year. We have to do what we can to lower that number, and teledentistry offers that option."
Emergency dental needs in the midst of a pandemic have certainly pushed teledentistry forward, but Kunstadter believes that the commonsense approach of seeing a dentist immediately when pain persists is among the most valuable benefits of the technology for patients.
"On many of our calls, I will hear people say that they have a dentist, but he or she is booked out until the end of December," she said. "They tell us, 'I can't wait that long and I need help.' We provide the help they need now."
Citing recent ADA Health Policy Institute numbers where many practices have plateaued at roughly 80% to 85% of their production from last year, Spadoni believes teledentistry offers a way for practices to encourage their patients to use their insurance benefits while staying away from the practice.
"Insurance companies are paying for this type of procedure and dentists still have the ability to triage those patients virtually and save valuable chair time for those who need it the most," she said. "Procedures that can be handled virtually provide a huge opportunity for all dental offices."
I asked Spadoni about how dental benefits, teledentistry, and insurance reimbursement would work together in 2021. She told me that while things were still evolving on that front at the time of this publication, she believed it would be "an additional benefit" in insurance plans from Anthem.
So, what is the biggest hurdle teledentistry still needs to overcome?
"I believe it is market awareness to the general public. It's awareness of the services available and how to get to it," Kunstadter said.
"We have a lot of young members who are tech savvy, but even with them, they need to be aware that there are benefits available and that they can see their dentist, even in these crazy times," Spadoni added. "We want our members to know that, even when they go to pick and choose their benefits, they should be asking about teledentistry and telehealth and ensure that that is available to them as a part of their benefits."
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