Dental Emergency? There’s an App for That!

A new smartphone app developed by students at the Indiana University School of Dentistry promises to change the way patients seek care for dental emergencies. The DentaCom app helps patients self-diagnose dental emergencies, and then find a dentist who can help them. Dr. Gary Lederman discusses the pros and cons of practicing medicine via a smartphone app.

The app was developed when one of the researchers at IU had a dental emergency after hours, and had to describe the problem over the phone to an on-call doctor. Frustrated that there wasn’t already an easier way to relay this information, the researcher and his team developed DentaCom. The app is said to work by guiding users through a series of questions about the dental problem they’re experiencing and allows them to submit that information with a photo. The information is then sent to a participating dentist, who can respond to the patient through the app and advise the patient what to do next.

The DentaCom app sounds like a great idea in theory- especially the emergency diagnosis function. As was the case of the researcher who came up with the idea for the app, patients often experience dental emergencies when the office is closed- and have no idea what to do next. The DentaCom app will enable patients to get professional advice from home, which they can then use to determine if they need to visit the emergency room, or if they can wait to see a dentist during regular business hours.

"My only concern about this app is that the developers suggest it may act as a substitute for an actual in-person dental exam to patients in rural area, or who do not have dental insurance," Dr. Lederman said. "I understand the logic behind this, but no matter how good this app may be, there is no substitute for an in-person exam and cleaning. So many things could go wrong using an app to practice medicine."

For starters, the app cannot take x-rays, which are an important part of any exam. Second, if the phone in use has a poor quality camera or bad lighting, the dentist could miss something important. Furthermore, getting a phone into your mouth to get certain angles may prove to be a lot more difficult than it sounds, especially for children. Another issue is, if your teeth aren’t clean, the photo you send may pick up some food stuck to a tooth that looks like a cavity and cause unnecessary alarm.

Ultimately, in emergency situations, the DentaCom app has great potential. It can send photos as well as answer questions to give the dentist on the other end of the app a clearer picture of what you’re experiencing. In these situations, because the user is most likely already planning to seek medical attention, whatever their preliminary diagnosis, they will still get a formal, in-person diagnosis as well. But while using an app where it is difficult to see a dentist for a regular exam is better than nothing, the fear is that this form of exam will not be accurate enough and may enable patients who do have access to a dentist to literally ‘phone it in’ with their dental care.

"My advice for patients without insurance is to call around and see if your local practice takes payment plans or offers any specials or discounts," Dr. Lederman said. "Most dentists would rather work with you than run the risk of you or your children going without dental care."

 As for rural patients, if it is truly impossible to make the trip to see a dentist, reach out to your state’s medical board and see if any traveling dental programs visit your area. Most states have them, and it may be possible that your community can be added to their route if there is a need for care in your area.

If you need to set up an exam or have a dental emergency, give Dr. Lederman’s office a call at 516-882-1764. If you are calling after business hours, you will be directed to call Dr. Lederman’s cell phone directly.

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