Teledentistry and the Oral-Systemic Connection
Dental care is often separated from the rest of the healthcare system. The fact, however, is that oral health directly impacts overall health, and vice versa. We should expect then that implementing systems that integrate dental and primary care will have positive impacts for patients’ overall well-being. Teledentistry represents a key technology opportunity for the integration of health care and dental care.
Smiles Across Montana Making the Connection
One dental organization striving to make this goal a reality is Smiles Across Montana (SAM) a non-profit organization based in Bozeman. Beyond bringing preventative dental care to patients where access to care is limited, SAM also provides general health screenings, blood pressure readings, extensive medical history reviews, and evaluations of social determinants of health. Those healthcare services are in addition to the dental care services they provide such as taking x-rays, intraoral images, and communicating with health care providers to make necessary referrals for either dental or medical care.
SAM accomplishes this medical-dental integration with a team of 10 hygienists, 5 dentists and multiple dental assistants who set up portable units in Head Start classrooms, WIC clinics, schools, nursing facilities, community health centers, and tribal programs.
Training and Beyond
Crystal Spring also takes on a training role for other allied health professionals. In early 2022, as part of her goal to integrate oral health into other healthcare touchpoints, Spring began working with nursing students, teaching them how to take intraoral images and look for abnormalities. They also learned how to take intraoral pictures with MouthWatch intraoral cameras. The intraoral images they send to providers at Smiles Across Montana, or other dentists, help the patients they see get care sooner.
In an innovative approach to provider education, Spring has teamed up with the Mark and Robyn Jones College of Nursing program at Montana State University for the past 4 years to develop curriculum that brings medical-dental integration into nursing education. Nursing students are learning about what they can do to improve oral health disparities in their role as nurses—and how the use of intraoral cameras for examination, documentation and referral will improve standards of care. Nurses in the MSU program are now armed with more than just a light pen to try and identify oral care concerns. With the aid of intraoral cameras and images, the nurses can now examine patients’ oral health and easily refer them to dental providers for treatment.
Through their outreach programs, the integration of healthcare services during dental care appointments, and collaboration with nurses, nurse practitioners and other medical providers, Smiles Across Montana is setting an example of how a successful integration model benefits patients and enhances their overall care and well-being.