Virtual dentistry for remote Australia

April 16, 2015

Trials of remote dental exams have shown that virtual dental consultations could improve oral health in remote communities.

The trials, which explored the application of ‘teledentistry’, were developed by the Oral Health CRC, the University of Melbourne’s Institute for a Broadband-Enabled Society and dental specialists at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital. They are supported by Google.

The project’s research leader, Associate Professor Rodrigo Marino, said the system could help improve dental health for Aboriginal children in remote communities. A pilot program is also exploring the use of teledentistry to provide dental services and oral healthcare treatment plans for elderly patients in nursing homes.

Pneumonia linked to oral infections is a major cause of hospitalisation among older people, and can be fatal. “Residents in nursing homes often don’t have access to dental services,” Marino said. “But with teledentistry, a consultation could be done by the nurses, with minimal disruption or discomfort for elderly patients.”

The CRC’s teledentistry trials involved consultations with 43 children in Geelong, Shepparton and Rosebud in Victoria. Three dentists in these regional towns were trained to use intraoral dental cameras to enable Royal Children’s Hospital orthodontists and palate specialists to conduct virtual examinations via real-time video.

No special software or equipment needed to be developed for the trials. CRC researchers used a computer equipped with sufficient memory to handle real-time video processing, a web camera for video conferencing and an intraoral camera about the size and shape of an electric toothbrush. They found that video streaming at a minimum of 3 Mb/s and internet bandwidth of 5 Mb/s provided good quality images for the dental specialists to analyse.

“We could see images in real time on the screen during the consultations, and the remote area dentists and the specialists in Melbourne could collaborate to work out a treatment plan for each patient,” said Marino.

Of the trial consultations, 57% resulted in treatment advice that meant patients could avoid a time-consuming trip to Melbourne. Marino said teledentistry will eliminate the time and expense incurred by rural patients, who often face a long, exhausting drive with no guarantee of an immediate and direct benefit.

He said the promising results show teledentistry could play a vital role in providing affordable and timely dental healthcare for urban Australia as well as rural and remote populations.

“It can increase access to specialist care and it can screen patients to make sure that only those who need to see a specialist will be put on waiting lists,” Marino explained. “So, it also has the potential to reduce the waiting time for treatment.”

Rosslyn Beeby

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