The traditional referral system is broken, and teledentistry can fix it

By Dr. Julia Heinrichs, contributing writer

October 13, 2020 -- Have you ever lost a patient between the cracks of his or her general dental appointment and a specialist referral?

Dr. Julia Heinrichs
Dr. Julia Heinrichs.

Here's how it commonly happens: A patient is handed off to the front office for a referral to see a specialist and is simply handed some business cards. I recently witnessed this while visiting a friend's dental office.

I immediately asked myself, "How will the general dentist know if the patient received the needed treatment? And if the patient did, did he or she choose a specialist who works well with the general dentist?"

The traditional referral system is broken, and teledentistry can fix it.

For example, when offices incorporate teledentistry software such as MouthWatch's TeleDent into their day-to-day routines, the technology needed to ensure seamless referrals, timely follow-up, and better patient care is already in the office.

Here are a few scenarios where teledentistry can fix a potential referral disconnect.

The fearful patient

I've had the patient who asked me to do work outside my scope. We have a relationship, and it took a long time for this high-fear patient to trust me. Now, imagine if I cast him out to another dentist after the time it has taken him just to come see me.

With teledentistry, you can introduce your patient to the specialist virtually. This allows patients to meet the specialist in a comfortable environment, increasing the odds that they will show up at the specialist's office for their needed care.

The pass-off

I'm sure you've never placed a business card somewhere and forgot it, right? The referral I mentioned above consisted of a patient being given three business cards that went right into the mom's purse.

In their busy lives, many patients will forget to make the appointment and delay necessary treatment, resulting in substandard care or throwing off entire treatment plans. Teledentistry enables the patient to meet the specialist while still in the general dentist's office and make the appointment before he or she leaves.


You send a patient to a specialist and something unforeseen occurs. For instance, you refer a patient to an endodontist and schedule the patient back to your office for a permanent restoration. The endodontist finds the tooth is unsalvageable.

You now have to rework your day to do an extraction instead of a crown. You also have to educate the patient about a new treatment plan, and the patient is now having a frustrating and disappointing experience.

This can be avoided by virtual treatment planning with the specialist and general dentist. For instance, with TeleDent, a general dentist and specialist can review radiographs together while in their respective offices. The specialist can request that the general dentist perform diagnostic tests before the referral is even made and discuss possible treatment options.

Bottom-line erosion

Most evaluation appointments are not reimbursable for specialist offices. The chair time and the currently high cost of personal protective equipment to see a patient just to reappoint him or her will be a financial drain over time.

Specialists can avoid this cost by using teledentistry with the referring general dentist. By collaborating closely, yet virtually, with the general dentist, all diagnostics can be performed in plain sight, ensuring you know how to be prepared for paperwork, financial discussions, and the treatment plan the first time the patient enters your practice. Patients love it because it saves them an appointment as well!

Teledentistry increases the predictability of high-quality outcomes. Let's face it, two minds are better than one. When a meeting of the minds and an open dialogue about treatment options and prognosis occurs, the patient will receive better care -- period.

Current referral systems for many offices are like running a play in football without a huddle. They may work at times, but I've seen plenty of fumbles and miscommunication. This is no way to treat your patients when you want to deliver high-quality care and benefit from the financial rewards of a smooth-running practice.

It's time to fix your broken referral system with teledentistry.

Dr. Julia Heinrichs is an owner and founder of Teledental Solutions, a teledentistry implementation and consulting company. She gained her experience from owning a highly profitable, teledentistry-equipped practice in Lenexa, KS, before selling it in 2018. Heinrichs is uniquely qualified in the successful implementation of revenue-generating teledentistry in all models of dental practices, as well as in creating strategies for corporations and their employees. She can be reached at

The comments and observations expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the opinions of, nor should they be construed as an endorsement or admonishment of any particular idea, vendor, or organization.

Copyright © 2020
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