Breakthroughs in digital dental technologies are giving Northern Arizona University dental hygiene students plenty to smile about. “NAU is not on the cutting edge…we are the cutting edge,” says Fred Summerfelt, assistant professor of dental hygiene, referring to the program’s new emphasis on the emerging practice of teledentistry.
Using portable, digital technology to capture patient X-rays, photographs and other diagnostic data, dental hygienists trained in teledentistry-assisted screenings can transmit their data to a supervising dentist for diagnosis and prescription. Because teledentistry education is typically aimed at dentists, Summerfelt says NAU is a trailblazer for incorporating teledentistry into its dental hygiene curriculum. “We are paving the way for teledentistry to be used in affiliated-practice dental hygiene,” he says.
“This becomes a real solution for underserved populations that must contend with limited access to dental care providers,” Summerfelt says, explaining that after reviewing the hygienist’s data, the supervising dentist can recommend next steps and treatment that otherwise may not have happened for months or even years. “This really gets to solving the problem of disparity of oral health among those who are geographically isolated or place-bound,” Summerfelt says.
“The Internet has taken the miles away. It’s now become a training vehicle that gives our graduates yet another reason to be hired.”
An added perk, says Summerfelt, is that diagnostic data that is acquired digitally is of far better quality than what the eye alone can see in a face-to-face exam. “We have a device that can see a cavity before an X-ray would detect it, and equipment that can digitally see oral cancer lesions long before they can be seen by the eye alone.”
Summerfelt is quick to point out that underserved populations aren’t the only ones who can benefit from remote dental hygiene screenings. “It’s good for just about everyone. The dentists can fill their chairs with only those who need service, which ultimately saves patients money and time. It’s also good for those dentists who want to expand their practice beyond their community. And it’s good for our students, who are carving out a new way to fill an important role and who are learning a skill set that gives them a career advantage.”
Summerfelt himself has put the teledentistry-assisted dental hygiene model to the test, providing screenings for Head Start children in affiliation with a local dentist. “No one’s doing this but us,” he says. “We are well on the way to establishing a profitable business model for future affiliated dental hygiene practices.”
NAU’s dental hygiene program is still based in traditional dental hygiene practices, explains Summerfelt, because “It’s not all digital everywhere yet. But incorporating teledentistry into the dental hygiene curriculum means our students will graduate with more practical experience. NAU is providing the people who can do the job, and this distinguishes our graduates and our university because we’re doing something no one else is doing.”