The study finds that teledentistry is a method of delivery that has the ability to extend care to patient populations with limited or no access to dental care. 

Teledentistry options provide critical access and affordable oral care currently lacking for many in the Latino community. Those are the findings of a new study conducted by IdeateLABs and the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture that looked at teledentistry and tele-orthodontics in the Latino community. 

“Lack of Latino dentists, lack of insurance, high costs makes dentistry inaccessible to Latino Communities. Teledentistry may provide access and affordable options for underserved communities,” said David Hayes-Bautista, professor of medicine, director of the Centers for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at UCLA, and the study’s lead author. 

The study, commissioned by Los Angeles-based IdeateLABs, found that many Latino young adults face the “Latino-Ortho Dilemma” when it comes to accessing dental and/or orthodontic care. Latinos are 80% less likely to have access to a dentist in their local area. This is coupled with a Latino dentist shortage, meaning fewer potential Latino providers for patients to choose from. Moreover, a lack of dental insurance and low household income, compounded by high costs of orthodontic care, make accessing orthodontic care difficult. 

In view of the Latino Dental Dilemma and Latino-Ortho Dilemma, the study’s authors recommend the use of teledentistry and tele-orthodontics be explored as potential means of increasing both the access to and affordability for underserved Latino communities. Further, given that Latinos form the labor force backbone of the state of California’s agricultural economy, teledentistry and tele-orthodontics are likely to be most beneficial in rural and underserved areas. It is a method of delivery that has the ability to extend care to patient populations with limited access or no access to dental care. 

To solve the Latino-Ortho Dilemma, the study’s authors point out that while the long-term goal should be to have dental schools increase Latino enrollments to address the Latino dentist shortage, the multiplier effects of teledentistry and tele-orthodontics should be explored as one way of bringing services to underserved areas caused by the Latino dentist shortage. In addition, the study recommends that long-term, efforts should focus on maintaining affordability and promoting innovation to reduce the cost-barriers that prevent communities from having straight teeth. Furthermore, they recommend that insurance coverage be expanded to include teledentistry. 

The study found that one of the barriers to greater use of telemedicine was that many insurers, such as private insurers and public programs including Medi-Cal, did not adequately reimburse for telehealth services. The COVID-19 pandemic brought some temporary, emergency relief to this issue; however, it is not clear whether this relief is temporary or permanent. 

The study’s authors do make a point of stating that patients should use teledentistry platforms that have oversight by a licensed California dentist. 

Going forward, the study’s authors want to see providers track data disaggregated by ethnicity and race. They point out that they have small data sets showing increased access in rural and underserved communities; however, more robust data sets are needed to meaningfully track utilization of teledentistry and tele-orthodontics.