Open wide: How teledentists save time and money

Seeing a dental specialist for a short appointment can be an expensive business. But fast broadband and special equipment is showing how patients could save time and money.

It’s roughly a 12-hour round-trip by car from Mildura to Melbourne, or you could spend a couple of hundred dollars each to fly there and back.

Either way, it’s a day off work and a pile of money.

So, imagine going all that way for an appointment that lasts just 15-minutes, with the prospect of doing it all again in a year’s time.

That is what some parents have to do to take their children who have dental problems for their essential check-up with a specialist at the Royal Children’s Hospital.

Dentistry from a distance

“Typically we see these children once every 12 to 18 months and they can drive down a long distance to Melbourne for consultations that can sometimes only take 15 minutes and they are then told to go back and come back next year,” says Dr Kerrod Hallett, director of dentistry at the hospital.

Saving time and money with teledentistry. Photo courtesy MNSI and the Oral Health CRC.

“Clearly if we can avoid that situation it would be beneficial for the families and for the hospital to avoid duplication of services.”

How can that be achieved? Through teledentistry and the fast broadband connections afforded by the nbn™ network.

Dr Hallett was one of the team who ran a teledentistry trial last year led by research dentists and technology experts at the University of Melbourne’s Institute for a Broadband-Enabled Society (IBES).

It involved a fast internet connection with good upload speed, a piece of equipment that looked like an electric toothbrush with a camera and lights on the end, connected to a computer with a USB cable, which could examine a patient’s mouth and transmit the images to a specialist at the hospital in Melbourne.*

The trial involved 43 patients under 18 years old who needed specialist treatment for cleft lip and palate problems. They saw general practitioner dentists in Rosebud, Shepparton and Geelong who then used intraoral cameras in the patients’ mouths so that specialists at the Royal Children’s Hospital could conduct a visual examination over the internet. The general and specialist dentists then discussed a treatment plan for each patient.

The results were striking. More than half of the patients seen were saved the trouble of trip to the hospital in Melbourne to see a specialist face to face.

As the nbn™ network is rolled out around the country the potential for teledentistry grows.

For instance, Dr Hallett says it could work as a screening tool in schools, or in aged care homes, where dental internet education has already been shown to work.

“nbn will play a big part and having the capability of going into some people’s homes will be very beneficial as we could do the screening test in the home. For people in isolated areas around Australia it opens up additional access to services that they can’t reach at the moment.

“I’d like to see it become more mainstream.”

Ken Clarke, senior research fellow with the Melbourne Networked Society Institute, who worked on the technical side of the trial, said nbn™ network rollout areas had been selected because broadband speeds were important to get over latency, or lag issues with video of patients’ mouths.

If a specialist was not immediately available for a remote consultation, good broadband bandwidth was needed for the “store and forward” method where big video files could be uploaded for review at a later date.

He said the teledentistry project would next be trialed on a sample of 500 elderly people in Victoria.

* Your experience including the speeds actually achieved over the nbn™ network depends on the technology over which services are delivered to your premises and some factors outside our control like your equipment quality, software, broadband plans and how your service provider designs its network.

Check your address to find out when the nbn™ network is available at your home or business.